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Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough
Dr. Michael Braungart (left) and William McDonough formed MBDC to develop materials that are ecological and economical, while promoting human equity.

Coming EV Redemption

An exclusive interview with MBDC's William McDonough.

By Bill Moore

When William McDonough was a child growing up in the Far East, his parents used to buy him candy wrapped in rice paper. If the paper was clean, he could eat it along the candy. If it wasn't, he'd peel off the rice paper and throw it away. By the next rain, the paper had dissolved and returned to the soil.

That childhood experience may account for McDonough's passion for a different, what he sometimes calls his 'quirky' approach to the environment, an approach shared by his German partner, Dr. Michael Braungart, and encapsulated in the book they co-authored entitled, Cradle to Cradle'.

It turns out that a lot of people have been reading their book, some of them senior executives at Ford Motor Company.

As McDonough discussed with EV World in his pervious interview, Ford hired his architectural design firm to make-over the carmaker's aging River Rouge auto plant in Dearborn, Michigan, Ib Once visionary achievement of Henry Ford, the rusting factory complex had fallen on hard-times. What McDonough and Associates did was to not just renovate the sprawling plant, once the world's largest auto assembly plant, but to turn it into a model of environmental responsibility. McDonough pointed out to EV World that a $13 million dollar investment in water-permeable parking lots, green roofs and landscaping enhancements offset a $48 million water pollution liability facing Ford.

So one year ago, when the Ford Research Group initiated a top secret program to integrate into a single car platform some of the most promising technologies of the 21st century, they decided to invite McDonough and Braungart into their deliberations. The result of that collaboration was the automotive evolutionary leap honored with the name "Model U."

We decided to re-interview McDonough because of his firm's involvement in the Model U. We wanted to get his take on where he now sees automotive technology going, and what may come as a surprise, is that he still firmly believes there is a place for battery electric vehicles in the 21st century and it's on the roads of the world, not just the golf courses and airport concourses. Call it an EV redemption of sorts.

The Charlottesville, Virginia-based architect and author, who Time magazine named in 1999 a "Hero for the Planet," explained that the Ford Research Group doesn't usually originate the design of concept vehicles. That task is normally left to the Design Group. This time, however, Ford wanted to explore a wide range of technologies from materials, to telematics to fuels to lubricants. "How many concept vehicles do you know where even the tires are different?" McDonough asked jokingly. "In the case of the Model U, we quite literally kicked the tires."

But Bill Ford, Jr., the chairman of Ford Motor Company, wanted his company's brightest minds to look into the near future and come up with a technology package that not only provided a faster transition to hydrogen as a fuel but also one that incorporated the latest in information technology. The package also had to include design strategies that made it cost effective to manufacture and assemble, as well as disassemble and recycle according to MBDC's biological and technological nutrient concepts.

A Solar Powered World
The central thesis of McDonough and Braungart's approach to the energy question is that our world needs to be solar-powered. By that, they don't mean equipping every home and business with photovoltaic arrays or people commuting in tiny cars running on solar electric panels. For them solar-powered has a much broader definition. McDonough continually uses the analogy of cherry blossoms.

Nature, he contends, isn't about minimalist efficiency, but exuberant waste! A single cherry tree will shed millions of cherry blossom petals every year. Those petals perform their function of helping pollinate the plant by attracting insects and then fall to ground to be reabsorbed into the soil, continuing an on-going cycle of life.

He is convinced that this is the model mankind needs to more closely emulate in its industrial processes and social structure. He emphasized to EV World that he isn't against oil. He thinks its a excellent material that can be safely polymerized into thousands of useful products. Burning it up in an internal combustion engine is a huge waste of a valuable resource.

For McDonough and his partner, Michael Braungart, a chemist and co-founder of Germany's Green Party, the 'cradle-to-cradle' process can be applied to nearly every facet of modern culture. He noted that if Germany raised the carbon content of its soil by just .02% using the bio-nutrient approach to materials design, it would be equivalent to the entire nation's annual C02 emissions. This alone would have a significant benefit to the nation, which is currently losing 20 tons of top soil per hectare, equivalent to about 5 tons per acre in the US, McDonough calculated.

To further illustrate McDonough and Braungart's "quirky" approach to their view of a "solar-powered" world, he recently told the head of a prestigious university to scrap its plans to renovate one of its older buildings. The university had called in McDonough to consult on ways to make the building more energy efficient. To do so, McDonough noted, would have meant lowering the ceilings, replacing all the drafty windows, changing the HVAC system, all to the tune of about $5 million dollars. It would have ruined the character of the building, he observed.

So, instead of remodeling the campus landmark, McDonough suggested the university invest the same amount of money in a wind turbine farm "in Kansas." This would more than offset any of the energy losses of the old building and create a very positive financial position for the university.

McDonough is so big on wind energy that he's been conducting negotiations in China to set up wind turbine manufacturing plants there, which will not only take advantage of China's favorable labor rates, but create much needed jobs and energy for the country.

In their view of the world, McDonough and Braungart see ample abundance for all, expressed in a triangle made up of three notions, Ecology, Equity and Economy. A technology that meets all three criteria equally, is a sustainable technology.

Signaling Intentions
That's why he and his partner are so excited about the Ford Model U concept vehicle. To date, it comes closest to achieving their ideal.

He told EV World that it "sends a signal of intention" about where Ford sees automotive technology heading. He explained that 90% of the Model U is recyclable as either a biological nutrient, like the rice paper of his childhood, or a technical nutrient.

For example, the fabric in the car is a specially-designed polyester developed in collaboration with Milliken. It is completely free of antimony and is the first fabric Milliken will actually take back for reprocessing into similar material. The canvas in the sliding sun roof is made from polylactic acid or PLA and can be shred and composted back into the soil. The filler in the tires is made of cornstarch instead of fossil fuel-based carbon black. Even the foam in the seats is soy-based and biologically safe. It can be either recycled as a technical or biological nutrient.

From MBDC's perspective, industry has only begun to explore the frontier of this new industrial revolution. The MBDC team thinks someday a car like the Model U can be made 100% recyclable. But for his part, McDonough believes that as a society we are going to need to come to a consensus on some very important social issues, which are only now starting to raise their heads, issues like genetically modified organisms (GMO). He pointed out that people who are facing starvation in Africa don't want US grains because they are GMO-based.

McDonough said he and Braungart are also very interested in the role steel has to play in the future. They are especially interested in the new "foam" steels which are strong and light and don't have the environmental issues associated with aluminum production and recycling. He thinks that by applying "intelligent" coatings, you can infinitely recycle steel.

Magnesium is another material that the American and German partners thinks has great possibilities, in part because it is light and abundant. But the keyword here is "intelligent." McDonough places a lot of emphasis on that word. "There is no reason we can't tackle anything," he stated, "It requires an intelligent act of commerce and science."

GM Vs Ford
EV World asked McDonough what his impressions were of GM's approach with it's focus on fuel cells and its innovative "skateboard" concept and that of Ford's more pragmatic "Model U." He replied that he liked the durability aspect of GM's Autonomy skateboard. He thinks that there's no reason technology like this couldn't last twenty years, so being able to change the car body over time is an interesting concept. He wasn't certain whether GM has taken as serious an interest in materials protocols as has Ford. He also thinks GM's approach has a far longer development window, whereas Ford's approach could be in use in just a "few years" time.

McDonough is also bothered by one of the lesser discussed issues confronting fuel cells, the availability and toxicity of platnium and palladium, two the critical metals used in fuel cells. [See AN ASSESSMENT OF PLATINUM AVAILABILITY FOR ADVANCED FUEL CELL VEHICLES].

In the Model U, the architect-turned-environmentalist-turned-car designer sees not an automobile, but a "mobility package" that includes safety, movement, convenience and amusement. However, he takes a bit of a different tack from Ford when it comes to the hydrogen ICE engine. He said he's just not that interested in hydrogen as a fuel if its derived primarily from steam reformed natural gas. In his mind, hydrogen is a "FreedomFUEL" only if its created from solar energy, either by wind or sunlight. It isn't if it's made from fossil fuel feed stocks. The trio of Ford engineers EV World interviewed in "Model U for Change" agreed that ultimately the hydrogen must be created from renewable energy.

EVs Not Finished Yet
Carmakers, the press and the public may have written off battery electric vehicles, but William McDonough hasn't. Not by a long shot.

He told EV World that the Model U could be easily reconfigured to be a pure EV with a 400 mile range and be rechargeable in just minutes. Sound impossible? McDonough doesn't think so. He indicated to EV World that he and Paul MacCready -- the developer of the original Impact EV that became the GM EV1 and the legendary head of Aerovironment -- share a common vision and are excited about some promising new battery and motor technology that will make this dream a reality. EV enthusiasts have heard this story before, but both McDonough and McCready have long track records of delivering what they promise.

McDonough also has another big surprise up his sleeve, but he's waiting to spring it later this year, possibly as early as September. He's promised to give EV World the inside story when its time.

Crowning Moment
For now, McDonough is pleased with what MBDC has achieved through the Model U. He said it was one of the most exhilarating moments in his life when Ford's head of new product development, Richard Parry-Jones announced to the world that "the Model U is the future." By giving the car, which was developed in just 12 months time, the Model U designation, McDonough believes that Ford has established it as the "icon" for the 21st century automobile, just as the original Model T was the icon for the 20th century.

McDonough said that when a $170 billion a year company accepts the principles embodied in "Cradle-To-Cradle," that says something about the company, its leadership, and the merit of the idea.
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Times Article Viewed: 10745
Published: 08-Feb-2003

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