Agave plant could be used in lightweight, sustainable bioplastics
Ford is working with Jose Cuervo, the largest tequila maker, to see if leftover fibers from the agave plant are a good ingredient for lightweight sustainable composites that can be used in wiring harnesses, HVAC units, and storage bins instead of petrochemicals. The two are testing agave-based bioplastics and early results are promising.
It is a new take on an old idea. Henry Ford unveiled the soybean car in 1941, made of agricultural plastic. Over the years Ford has looked to recycle everything from rice hulls to blue jeans.
And Ford is not alone. Decades ago Daimler initiated a project in the Brazilian rainforest to use coconut husks as natural fibers for headliners and sun visors for Freightliner trucks.
“At Ford, we aim to reduce our impact on the environment,” said Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader with the sustainability research department, in a release. “We are developing new technologies to efficiently employ discarded materials and fibers, while potentially reducing the use of petrochemicals and light-weighting our vehicles for desired fuel economy.”
The agave plant is ready for harvest after seven years. The heart of the plant is roasted and ground to extract its juices which are then distilled into tequila. Some of the leftover fibers are used by Jose Cuervo as compost for its farmers and some is used by local artisans to make crafts and paper. There is a lot of unused fiber available.
“This collaboration brings two great companies together to develop innovative, earth-conscious materials,” said Sonia Espinola, director of heritage for Cuervo Foundation and master tequilera. “As the world’s No. 1-selling tequila, we could never have imagined the hundreds of agave plants we were cultivating as a small family business would eventually multiply to millions.”
Conversely, there are about 400 pounds (181 kg) of plastic on a typical car, said Mielewski. “Our job is to find the right place for a green composite like this to help our impact on the planet. It is work that I’m really proud of, and it could have broad impact across numerous industries.”
According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 5 billion metric tons of agricultural biomass waste is produced annually. The auto industry has recognized its potential to make lower-cost, light, environmentally friendly car parts which will help automakers meet fuel economy targets.