Lincoln is injecting some environmental friendliness into the ’14 MKX CUV with the introduction of tree-based materials inside the vehicle.

Working with supplier partners Weyerhaeuser and Johnson Controls, researchers developed a tree-based, cellulose-reinforced polypropylene that is used to replace the fiberglass material used in the floor console substrate, a structural piece located within the armrest.

The automaker says pieces made from CRP are 6% lighter than the materials they replace and decrease the reliance on less environmentally friendly fiberglass parts.

The use of CRP, while small in the current project, could be more impactful in future applications, says Ellen Lee, plastics research technical expert.

“If we transfer its use to larger parts, it could really benefit the vehicle weight, which benefits fuel economy,” she says. “Cellulose has good reinforcement, so we looked at fiberglass-reinforced materials for this project.”

Lee says cellulose was chosen because it has the highest stability qualities among plant-based materials and its small, long and thin fibers have properties similar to plastics and are able to meet the automaker’s engineering requirements.

Wood used for the part is sourced from Weyerhaeuser, one of the largest forest-product companies in the U.S. The business is fully sustainable, Lee says, noting it plants more trees annually than it harvests.

“We know people think chopping down trees is not environmentally friendly, but we’ve found they have very sustainable procedures and strategies,” she says.

Beyond cutting weight, which boosts fuel economy, using plant-based materials gives Lincoln a unique image among luxury brands, Lee says.

The automaker is in the midst of a massive reinvention in which parent Ford is spending hundreds of millions on new products and marketing initiatives and introducing the brand in China.

“We found the Lincoln customer wants the backstory on where things come from,” she says. “So this gives them the ability to get luxury, but also do something to give back to the environment.”

Lincoln likely will migrate and expand the use of CRP across its lineup, and Lee and her team are looking at other parts of the vehicle it could replace. Possibilities include battery trays or covers for interior storage areas.

Lee declines to reveal if CRP parts are more cost effective than their plastic counterparts, but says everything Ford does has to make sense from a business perspective.

“As we increase the number of these and the size and weight reduction adds up, it helps in terms of an economic case,” she says. “Also, cellulose-based composites process faster and wear less, and the tools (to make them) don’t get worn down as quickly and are more energy-efficient.”

bpope@wardsauto.com