When Tequila and Driving Mix: Making Cars From Agave Plants

Ford and Jose Cuervo team up to make an agave fiber–based bioplastic that can replace petroleum-derived auto parts.

(Illustration: Élishia Sharie; photos: agave field—Getty Images; Ford truck—Michel Curi/Flickr; Jose Cuervo—Facebook)

Jul 21, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

Drinking and driving don’t mix, but tequila and automobiles might still have a future together—and that could help the environment.

Ford Motor Company and Jose Cuervo on Tuesday announced a collaboration to tap fiber from the agave plant, which is used to distill tequila, to make a bioplastic that could be used in automobile parts.

Designers at Ford Research Labs in Dearborn, Michigan, are developing ways to use agave fiber as a substitute for fiberglass and talc, which are mixed with petroleum-based resins to produce plastic. The use of such fibers in plastic materials reduces the amount of petroleum required.

“There are a lot of environmental advantages to making your composite material with a natural fiber,” said Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader of materials sustainability at Ford.

“We’re not waiting for the perfect solution, but what we are trying to do is be greener,” she said. “This uses a renewable resource instead of glass and talc, which are not renewable and take a lot of energy to make.”

The new plastic composite is still in the development stage. The material has been tested for odors and off-gassing, “and it passes,” Mielewski said.

The agave composite will likely be used in auto parts such as wiring harnesses, heating, ventilation, air conditioning units, storage bins, and vehicle trim.

Mielewski could not say when Ford’s tequila cars might reach the market.

Why agave? “We were looking for something that was readily available in excess,” Mielewski said. Ford discovered that Cuervo harvests 200 to 300 tons of agave every day from farms in Mexico. Juice is extracted from the heart of the succulent plant, leaving behind fiber as a waste product. The plant’s spiky leaves are also high in fiber.

“We contacted them about what uses they had for the fiber, and they were ecstatic, because there are very few uses,” Mielewski said. Some fiber is used for compost in agave fields, and some is turned into paper for artisanal products.

But most of the fiber is burned, Mielewski said, releasing particulate matter and carbon dioxide into the air. Converting the waste material into auto parts sequesters the greenhouse gas instead.

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Agave fiber is also lighter than talc and fiberglass and can reduce the weight of plastic made with those materials by 15 percent, increasing the fuel efficiency of cars.

“There’s about 400 pounds, on a typical vehicle, of petroleum-based plastics right now,” Mielewski said. “If you replaced just a bin, it will affect fuel economy very little. But if you look at the 120,000-mile journey that people hold on to their cars for, then you start to see a reasonable amount of petroleum saved.”

“Agave seems like a really good application for automobiles,” said Ramon Sanchez, director of the sustainable technologies and health program at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“On average, every 5 percent of weight saved in a vehicle increases fuel efficiency by 2 to 3 percent,” Sanchez said. “This doesn’t seem like much, but during the complete vehicle’s lifetime, it could yield hundreds of gallons saved [and] reduce greenhouse gas emissions that affect the environment.”

Agave fiber also enhances recycling at the end of life of the vehicle, “which might reduce landfill use and potential health and environmental damages,” Sanchez said. “If the fiberglass is substituted, it could reduce environmental health damages in any organisms that are exposed to glass fibers if a car is abandoned or not properly disposed of in a landfill.”

Mielewski said Ford has used plant-based products in its cars since 2010, including soybeans, tree cellulose, coconut husk, and wheat straw.

“We’re helping farmers to generate revenue streams that they never thought they would have,” she said. “Stuff that we think of as waste is probably not waste at all. We should think about what perfectly great uses there are for these materials instead of burning them.”