In December 1941, Popular Mechanics magazine published an article about the pioneering invention of the car manufacturer Henry Ford. It says that at the time, Ford had been researching a car made from 100% natural raw materials for 12 years, even powered by a mixture of vegetable oil.
Henry Ford invented a car whose body was made almost entirely of hemp and soy-based plastic. Rudolph Diesel, the inventor of the diesel engine, helped design the engine so that vegetable oils such as hemp oil could be used in a car. According to the article, Ford and its partners made the car from 70% cellulose fiber from wheat straw, hemp and sisal and 30% polymer binder. Only the welded frame was made of steel. Thus, the car weighed only 900 kilograms and was much lighter than conventional cars of the time.
Henry Ford’s “hemp machine” never got further development. The reason for this was the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, which imposed high taxes on cannabis and hemp products. Hemp has become extremely expensive, making industrial cultivation unprofitable. During this time, nylon, a synthetic fiber made from petroleum, entered the market. Several oil companies and papermakers have supported taxing a greener, cheaper and more sustainable competitor.
Hemp and natural fibers are designed for automotive construction: they are lightweight, safe and inexpensive. In modern cars, an average of five to seven kilograms of natural fibers are used. The spare wheel recesses are made from banana fibers, the seat backs are partially made from linen, hemp and coconut fibers, processed olive pits are used to ventilate the tanks, and cotton and sisal are used for insulation panels. Carmaker Lotus even made whole body parts and a spoiler for the Eco Elise from hemp fibers.
Low weight and high safety, because the parts are very stable, they break off bluntly and do not form sharp edges, which could hurt passengers in an accident. Environmentally friendly processing also speaks in favor of their use. Several well-known car manufacturers have also recognized this and rely at least in part on the use of natural fibers. For the i3 electric car, BMW opted for kenaf for most of the interior. We spoke to Daniela Bolinger, head of sustainable design at BMW, and wanted to know where natural fibers are primarily used and what opportunities hemp has in the automotive market.
While hemp fibers are mostly used in the invisible area when it comes to design, BMW relies heavily on kenaf. The door holder and dashboard cover of the BMW i3 are made of kenaf plastic composite material, which is almost 40% lighter than conventional plastic. In addition to the sustainability aspect, the use of natural fibers in the visible area is primarily beneficial for the eyes. The i3’s interior is visually refined and conveys a noble image. The Bavarian car manufacturer decides on the symbiosis of renewable raw materials and sophisticated design and shows how well natural fibers can be used in the modern automotive industry.
The idea to use natural fibers did not come up immediately. Research into the optimal use of renewable raw materials began at BMW 10 years ago. In this way, the CO2 emissions from the production of the i3 can be reduced by 1/3. It is not only wise use that plays an important role in relation to renewable raw materials.
“First of all, we pay attention to the conditions of production of renewable raw materials and short transport routes to ensure sustainable production,” explains Daniela Bolinger.
In addition, BMW is constantly looking for new ideas and materials, and hemp also plays a role, Bolinger continues.
However, they are still skeptical about the use of hemp fibers in the visible part of the interior. The reason for this is the elasticity of the material. According to Bayerische Motorenwerke, the materials used must meet extreme requirements and, for example, withstand strong temperature fluctuations without damage.
Mention should be made of the significantly lower purchasing costs for natural fibers, which means that production costs can be significantly reduced, especially in the long term. Agricultural compCompanies such as Hempflax from the Netherlands have also recognized this and specialize in the industrial cultivation of hemp for fiber production. The Dutch company supplies natural hemp fibers to the automotive industry. Considering the huge German automobile industry, which is by far the most important economic sector in Germany in terms of sales, there would be, at least in theory, a large area of application for hemp fibers that could be used there.
The example of the Stuttgart car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz shows that natural fibers are becoming increasingly attractive to the automotive industry. The C-Class has 76 components made from renewable raw materials with the same quality standards as plastic parts. Indeed, Mercedes-Benz can be called a pioneer in the use of natural fibers in the manufacture of automobiles. In the door panels of the E-Class at that time (model range 210), plastic was replaced by fiber mats made of linen and sisal. The Stuttgart car manufacturer processes around 350 tons of tropical plants annually.
Hartmut Kovacs, Head of Automotive Certification, Automotive Compliance and the Environment at Mercedes-Benz, emphasizes the continued use of natural fibers: “Hemp and Kenaf are now used in door linings across all model ranges. In the newly developed lightweight sunroof frame A hemp and kenaf natural fiber mat with thermosetting binders replaces the traditional sheet steel frame, ”says Kovacs.
At Daimler, they can look back on the long history of using natural fibers and primarily use them as a replacement for glass fibers in interior trim components to reduce vehicle weight. There are undoubtedly many benefits to using natural fibers. These include, among others, the already mentioned weight reduction, almost CO2 neutral emissions. – balance of components or reduction of fossil fuel consumption. Whether you use hemp or kenaf at Daimler depends on the required properties of the component. However, as a rule, a mixture of different fibers is used, Kovacs emphasizes. Kenaf’s main advantage is that it is more affordable. This is also the reason that hemp is not the only natural fiber of choice. Daimler also explains that due to the very high international standards and requirements of the automotive industry, they do not rely entirely on hemp. Connoisseurs love kenaf. The tropical plant belongs to the mallow genus and is native to Bangladesh, Thailand, India and parts of China. Develops stems up to four meters high.
Kenough was probably not known to Henry Ford in the 1940s. For his “Hemp Machine” he mainly used hemp. Bruce Michael Dietzen took up the idea again and set himself the goal of producing fully CO2 – neutral vehicles by 2025. Both cars and production should be as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible. According to his own claims, his car is made of CO2 neutral gas. CO2 – the balance in the production of a conventional car is 10 tons. Dietzen, creator of the Renew Sports Cars brand, started with three models: the Canna 225, Canna 525 and the Canna EV. As the name suggests, unlike the models of German car manufacturers, the body and upholstery of all models is entirely made from hemp. The resin-coated woven hemp makes the car both extremely stable and lightweight.
Dietzen came up with the idea for a hemp car while researching Henry Ford’s Hemp Car, which has lower CO2 footprints than conventional electric vehicles these days. His eco-friendly car is currently registered in the United States as a modified Mazda Miata, with a steel frame serving as the basis for a new version of Ford’s innovative model. Inside is an internal combustion engine that can also run on biobutanol alcohol, which is made from corn leftovers. However, due to poor accessibility, the car runs on regular gas most of the time. Dietzen notes that he is unlikely to meet international standards. Unlike Ford, woven hemp was used instead of hemp fibers, making the body even lighter and more stable. Biologically produced epoxy holds everything together. Dietzen obtains hemp from Romania and China. Henry Ford’s 1940s idea of making everything imaginable from plant materials is more relevant than ever in the time of climate change. With nearly CO2 neutral cars, Renew sports cars have proven that sustainable manufacturing is entirely possible to curb climate change. The fact that hemp was used for production is explained.