Janet Yin checks out a door-handle recess made from a bamboo composite.
Nanjing, China – As carmakers search for cheaper, lighter, more sustainable new materials to use in their future models, one of them is focusing on a material as old as the dinosaurs – bamboo.

Alongside super-expensive carbon fibre composites and aluminium alloys, this grass-like plant stands out because it’s strong (stronger than a lot of cheap metal alloys!), durable (Chinese builders have been using big bamboo poles for scaffolding for centuries) versatile (Thomas Edison experimented with it when making the first light bulbs) – and it grows like a weed across most of Asia and parts of South America.

In fact, bamboo is the world’s fastest-growing plant; some species grow a metre a day – you can sit there and watch it! – making it one of the earth’s most sustainable resources.

“Bamboo is amazing,” said Janet Yin, a materials engineering supervisor at Ford’s Nanjing Research & Engineering Centre. “It’s strong, flexible, plentiful and totally renewable.”

And you can eat the shoots and leaves – ask any panda.

Yin has been working with bamboo suppliers for several years, evaluating the use of bamboo composites in car interiors; she’s found that bamboo does better than other synthetic or natural fibres in a range of tests from tensile strength to impact resistance. And it maintains its integrity up to 100 degrees – the boiling point of water – which, as any Kuga owner will tell you, is more than can be said of most plastics.

Soon, non-metallic parts such as door-handle recesses, storage pockets and even dashboards could be moulded using bamboo composites rather than oil-based plastics, in a process that doesn’t require any energy to melt the material for moulding or water to cool it down afterwards. The resulting mouldings are also harder (thus more scratch-resistant) than commonly used thermoplastics.

Bamboo fibres can even be woven into a fabric resembling denim (bamboo jeans are already available in South Africa) so you could be sitting in car seats upholstered with bamboo fibre within the foreseeable future.

Bamboo fibres can be woven into a fabric resembling denim

Ford is also investigating other sustainable and recycled materials; in Mexico, it’s working with Jose Cuervo to find ways to use the agave pulp that’s left over after making tequila. Like most fruit pulp, it’s practically pure cellulose – a key component of many synthetic fabrics – and can be extruded to form microfibres and woven or knitted into a durable silk-like fabric called rayon.

Almost as important as finding sustainable new materials, is finding ways to use the second-hand plastics that are choking the environment – especially plastic bottles.

The seats and door panels of the new aluminium-bodied Ford F-150 are upholstered with Repreve, a fabric made from recycled plastic bottles; the company that supplies it proudly boasts that it diverts more than five million bottles a year from ending up in landfill.

Using stuff other people throw away

Also made from plastic bottles, but using a different process, are the floor-mats, wheel-well liners and kick shields on the Transit and C-Max.

Second-hand nylon carpet tiles become cylinder head covers for the the Mustang, F-150, Fusion and Escape, and cotton from discarded jeans and T-shirts becomes sound insulation.

Worn-out tyres provide the material for seals and gaskets, while soy-based foam is used in upholstery. The plastic insulation on the wiring of the F-150 is reinforced with rice hulls (that’s the stuff that gets thrown away when natural rice is refined for western palates) and the storage bins on the Ford Flex are reinforced with wheat straw – which could just lead to a world shortage of haybales!

IOL Motoring

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