Ford has taken the green vehicle lead among automakers with initiatives that go beyond the powertrain. Many of the materials used in Ford vehicles are recyclable and replace plastics that end up in landfills. Ford’s latest green vehicle innovation may be biodegradable parts made from mycelium, a mushroom fungus.
Making car parts from mushrooms
Ford is collaborating with eco start-up Evocative Design in the development of a biodegradable foam made from mushrooms. The fungus-based foam could be used in bumpers, side doors and dashboards. The key ingredient in the manufacturing process is mycelium, the branching fibers of a mushroom’s root system. Evocative Design has developed mycelium into an incredibly strong binding agent that is applied to other organic materials such as corn and oat husks. The organic material is combined with mycelium in trays that serve as the mold for various auto parts. The living mycelium intertwines with the organic material in the molds for five days. Then the forms are heated and dried into sturdy, lightweight automotive components that are also waterproof and fireproof. If the Ford/Evocative Design collaboration takes off, cars of the future could end up in compost heaps instead of landfills.
Mycelium versus Styrofoam
Evocative Design hopes to develop its mycelium manufacturing process to the point that fungus could displace both plastic car parts and the ubiquitous toxic Styrofoam packing materials that pollute the air and clog landfills with waste. To meet Ford’s safety requirements, the challenge is ensuring that the living organism grows consistently enough to create an eco-friendly material with the uniform density of plastic or Styrofoam. Currently Evocative Design’s bread and butter is a contract to produce custom mycelium packaging for Steelcase, an office furniture manufacturer. After investigating other green packaging materials, Steelcase went with Evocative’s mycelium because it costs about the same as Styrofoam and requires less than 15 percent of the energy to produce and emits just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide. Mycelium packaging also recycles agricultural waste and, unlike Styrofoam, biodegrades.
Ford’s green vehicle initiative
Ford says its vehicles are 85 percent recyclable by weight. The automaker has already replaced plastics with eco-friendly materials such as soy-based foam for seat cushions on more than 2 million vehicles, and in the future Ford plans to outfit every car it makes with the substance. In addition to Evocative’s mycelium, Ford is exploring a range of eco-friendly materials that include cooked chicken feathers, algae and wheat straw with the goal to replace 30 pounds of plastic per vehicle. According to Ford, using eco-friendly alternatives reduced its landfill waste by 30 million pounds in 2009 and saved the company $4.5 million.