Ford's tequila sunrise: Partnership with Jose Cuervo may turn agave waste into bioplastic

Ford and Jose Cuervo's agave partnership
© Ford Motor Company

With most spirits, you don't really want them to come back for a second go-around, especially the morning after, but in this case, it's a good thing.

Ford's FarmToCar initiative, which seeks to integrate more sustainable plant-based materials in the construction of its cars and trucks, is getting another boost, thanks to a partnership with iconic tequila distiller Jose Cuervo. The making of tequila from the agave plant results in the production of a byproduct of agave fibers, some of which end up as compost for future agave crops, and some going to local artisans to use as a craft material. But perhaps someday soon, your new Ford vehicle may include some of this agricultural waste in the form of bioplastic, which is a less harmful material than petroleum-based plastics.

Ford has a long history of experimenting with different renewable materials in its vehicles, from the WWII-era soy/hemp plastic Ford prototype car to today's inclusion of plant-based materials such as soy foam, kenaf fiber, wheat straw, castor oil, coconut fiber, etc,. in some of its car and truck components. The reasoning behind moving toward bioplastics and other plant-based materials is two-fold, as these natural alternatives can reduce weight in the vehicles (resulting in better fuel economy and reduced materials shipping costs) as well as reduce the quantity of petrochemicals used in building its vehicles.

The agave lifecycle is a long one, leading some to dub certain agave varieties as century plants, and while it doesn't take nearly as long as a hundred years for them to grow to maturity, those used in tequila making require at least seven years before they are ready to harvest. Compared to many of our other alcohol feedstocks, such as barley or grapes, this growth cycle is considerably longer, and requires a bit more long-term planning, so finding a way to repurpose some of the byproducts into new materials is a commendable effort. And considering that only the heart of the agave is used in making tequila, giving the rest of the agave plant a second life as bioplastics might be a good start.

"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. This collaboration brings two great companies together to develop innovative, earth-conscious materials." - Sonia Espinola, director of heritage for Cuervo Foundation and master tequilera

According to Ford, the companies are "exploring" the use of agave in the development of sustainable bioplastics, and the automaker is testing the material's heat resistance and durability for possible use in both exterior and interior vehicle components, such as in wiring harnesses, HVAC units, and storage bins. Here's a quick look at the project:

"At Ford, we aim to reduce our impact on the environment. As a leader in the sustainability space, 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." - Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader, sustainability research department

Now, before the comments section gets populated with the opinion that Ford ought to build more electric vehicles as a way to reduce its environmental footprint, instead of looking to incremental improvements in materials, it's important that we all remember that we're the ones driving demand for new cars and trucks, and we're the ones driving them, period. It's obvious that many car companies, tech companies, homebuilders, architects, city planners, airline companies, and many other industry leaders could do more, and we could (and often do) offer plenty of unsolicited advice to them, based on our own perspective, but considering how slowly the wheels of change turn, and how consumers and manufacturers alike are complicit in the creation of our current petro-based economy, the move to a more sustainable economy is more likely to be one full of baby steps, and not giant leaps.

If you're interested in learning a bit more about Ford's FarmToCar initiatives, this short film might be a great place to start:

Tags: Materials

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