Ford is Using Factory Emissions to Make Car Parts

May 16, 2016

Carbon emissions spewed from factories could help Ford build its next generation of cars and trucks.

The automaker is creating and testing new foam and plastic components using carbon dioxide captured during its operations to make seats and interiors, Bill Ford, the company's executive chairman, said during Fortune Brainstorm E, a two-day summit about energy, technology, and sustainability that kicked off Monday in Carlsbad, Calif.

Up to half of the foam, which is still undergoing testing, is made up of CO2-based polyols. It could be used in car seats and engine parts if testing proves successful. Researchers expect to see the bio-foam in Ford production vehicles within five years.

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"It's really been interesting to try and come up with new ways to solve environmental solutions," Ford said during a session with Fortune editor Alan Murray. "What's really cool is all this technology is enabling solutions that even two or three years ago wasn't possible."

While the foam likely won't be used in production vehicles for several years, Ford said eventually all of its seats could be made from the material. Most of the plastic and foam used in cars today comes from fossil fuels.

Plastic manufacturing accounts for nearly 4% of the world's oil use, according to British Plastic Federation, meaning there are more ways than just the tailpipe to emit harmful carbon dioxide emissions into the air.

Using this foam could reduce petroleum use by more than 600 million pounds of oil each year, enough to fill nearly 35,000 American homes, Ford said.

Ford already uses a number of biomaterials in its products, including soy foam in every vehicle sold in North America. Coconut fibers in Ford's truck liners and recycled plastic bottles are turned into a fabric used in the 2016 F-150.

In 2013, Ford began working with several companies, suppliers, and universities to find uses for captured CO2. The automaker partnered with Novomer, a New York-based company that uses carbon dioxide captured from manufacturing plants to produce innovative materials. Novomer found a way to capture the CO2 and convert it into a polymer that can be used to make a variety of materials, including foam and plastic that is easily recyclable.

7 p.m. ET: Correction: Because of a misstatement by Ford's executive chairman Bill Ford, an earlier version of this story incorrectly cited how much petroleum could conserved by using foam made from captured carbon emission. It is 600 million pounds annually, not barrels.

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