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Reducing water consumption … by cars?

Jan. 5, 2012

Water, water, everywhere … Nor any drop to drink.” –Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

It’s seems a little bizarre, frankly, to contemplate an automaker’s publicly avowed effort to reduce the amount of water consumed by its vehicle manufacturing efforts.

I mean, one can more readily understand efforts to, say, reduce the amount of aluminum, steel, plastics, and other such raw materials that go into the making of cars these days.

But water? Really? Frankly, it’s a little hard to grasp this concept -- at least initially.

Then, of course, one begins to realize that the thousands of people staffing vehicle manufacturing plants around the world use an awful lot of water each day.

Water is also a key ingredient in vehicle paints, too, thus making the paint chemistry part of water conservation efforts as well when it comes to vehicle manufacturing.

Thus the reasoning behind Ford Motor Co.’seffort to reduce water consumption by its global manufacturing operation by some 30% per vehicle by 2015 – on top of the 62% or 10.5 billion gallon reduction in water consumed by Ford’s plants between 2000 and 2010, which translates into a per-vehicle reduction of 49% over the last decade.

Sue Cischke, Ford’s group VP for sustainability, environment and safety engineering said that 10.5 billion gallon reduction is equivalent to the amount of water consumed by 105,000 American homes every year (a number based on Environmental Protection Agency data, she noted).

Slicing water consumption by a further 30% between 2009 and 2015 means the amount of water used to make a vehicle will have dropped from 9.5 cubic meters in 2000 to approximately 3.5 cubic meters in 2015, with one cubic meter is equal to 264.2 gallons, Cischke said.

This isn’t by the way just a “goody two-shoes” type of “green” effort Ford is undertaking here. That’s because demand for water worldwide is growing rapidly and is thus becoming – just like oil and steel – a more precious “raw material” within manufacturing efforts.

[Below, Monsanto's Michael Doane talks about water demand, why it's growing and why people are starting to talk about water as a big challenge moving forward.]

OK, so how is Ford reducing water usage? First, there are the conservation efforts taking place within its factories. For example, at Ford's Hermosillo Stamping and Assembly Plant in Mexico's Sonora Desert -- where the automaker builds the Fusion, Fusion Hybrid and Lincoln MKZ sedans -- production doubled between 2000 and 2010 while water usage dropped by 40% during the same period.

How, you ask? Well the savings primarily comes from a (get this) “membrane biological reactor,” which is a fancy term for a biological water treatment system. This takes up to 65% of the plant's wastewater suitable for high-quality re-use elsewhere in the facility or for irrigation. Ford added that this water treatment system is being used at its plants in Chennai, India and Chongqing, China.

[On a somewhat related tangent, here’s an interesting perspective on the whole “sustainability” movement offered by John Paul Kusz, president of JP Kusz, Ltd., who believes using the word "healthy" is a better way to describe sustainability programs and thus get the general public to support such efforts. Not saying I necessarily agree with him, but it’s an interesting view nonetheless.]

In terms of the production processes themselves, Ford is using "Minimum Quantity Lubrication" or “MQL” machining, also known as dry-machining, at several of its engine plants around the world.

These machining systems lubricate the cutting tool with a very small amount of oil sprayed directly on the tip in a finely atomized mist, instead of using a much larger coolant/water mixture. The process saves hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and oil per year, Ford pointed out, and by eliminating the coolant/water mixture, dry-machining eliminates the need to treat and dispose of an oily waste stream.

Dry-machining also is delivering significant benefits in energy use, waste production, quality, working conditions and costs. For a typical 450,000-unit line, more than 280,000 gallons of water can be saved annually, Ford noted.

In the U.S., Ford said it’s using such dry-machining systems at its Livonia Transmission plant, Van Dyke Transmission plant and Romeo Engine plant along with a number of others in Europe.

Pretty neat stuff, if you ask me.

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