Product, Service & Design Innovation
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Ford Seeks Sustainable Rubber Alternative, While Chevy Lightweights New Corvette

Two major American automakers have formed innovative partnerships aimed at producing vehicles with lighter and more sustainable materials.

First, Ford is in search of a sustainable alternative to rubber. Due to the extreme price fluctuations of natural rubber and the desire to lower the per vehicle environmental footprint, the company is testing several domestically sourced alternatives.

In partnership with Ohio State University, company scientists are experimenting with materials from dandelions, orange and soybean oils; and guayule, a shrub grown in Arizona that Patagonia and tire companies Cooper and Bridgestone are already using as a replacement material for wetsuits and tires, respectively. Additional research is required to determine the amount of rubber that could be conserved by switching to alternative sources, but Ford estimates it could be as much as 50 percent, depending on the part of the car.

"From an economic perspective, this development is significant as the U.S. currently imports nearly all of its natural rubber and the demand for natural rubber continues to grow globally," said Janice Tardiff, Ford's lead elastomers researcher. "By establishing a domestic rubber industry, the U.S. would greatly benefit from local economic development, while simultaneously reducing rubber price fluctuations and import costs. Additionally, locally-sourced rubber would help the industry meet growing demand without the need to increase petroleum-based rubber production, while also reducing the environmental impacts of shipping rubber across the oceans."

Tardiff anticipates that the company could produce an alternative rubber prototype within the next year.

"The Ohio State facilities are state of the art, their researchers are well known in their field and they collaborate extremely well across their areas of expertise. The right team seems to be in place to move the natural rubber alternative research to a viable domestic rubber source," Tardiff said. "We're making significant progress."

Ford’s rubber research adds to its ongoing effort to innovate in its use of materials. In 2013, the automaker partnered with Coke to incorporate the beverage giant’s PlantBottle material into its interiors; and last year, Ford teamed up with Heinz to investigate the use of tomato fibers in bio-based composite materials for vehicle manufacturing. And in an effort to promote sustainable design, this year the company sponsored a competition for apparel designers to make garments from car seat materials.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet is teaming up with Continental Structural Plastics (CSP), a leader in lightweight composite materials, to produce a new, lighter version of the 2016 Corvette. The use of TCA ® Ultra LiteTM material instead of traditional metals will result in a vehicle that weights 20 pounds less than older models.

“In materials engineering, shaving a single pound per car is a significant accomplishment, so saving 20 pounds per car is monumental,” said Tadge Juechter, Corvette Chief Engineer. “This is a great example of how Chevrolet is continually looking for innovations that improve performance on Corvette, and could benefit possible future applications.”

The weight savings created by TCA Ultra Lite is accomplished through the use of a CSP-patented technology that uses treated glass bubbles to replace some of the Calcium Carbonate filler, resulting in a lighter-density material. On the new Corvette model, 21 body panel assemblies, including doors, decklids, quarter panels and fenders, are molded from TCA Ultra Lite.

Combined with CSP’s vacuuming and bonding manufacturing technology, TCA Ultra Lite offers a premium Class A finish with paint and gloss materials comparable to metals such as aluminum. It also offers cost savings: For production volumes under 150,000, tooling costs for composites can be as much as 50 to 70 percent less than those for stamping steel or aluminum.

“We have been working closely with GM to launch this patented, weight-saving technology on the iconic Corvette, achieving this conversion with no changes in material thickness or tooling while maintaining the superior surface finish required for this premium vehicle,” said CSP Chairman and CEO Frank Macher. “With this successful launch, we can say TCA Ultra Lite is proven to offer several advantages over aluminum and is truly the next generation of lightweighting technology for the automotive industry.”

Chevy’s commitment to innovation extends to its production of environmentally forward, transparent vehicles. In 2012, the company began placing environmental labels on all of its new cars, featuring information on their manufacturing, driving performance and recycling options. Earlier this year, the company released the concept Chevy Bolt, a potential all-electric car with a 200-mile range and an affordable sticker price of $30,000.

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