Ford installs bean chairs; strengthens renewable R&D

Ford is going to use soybean-based foams for its 2009 Ford Escape, which will come out next year, according to automotive supplier Magna International.

The BioFoam is going to be used in seat cushions, head restraints, arm rests, headliners and occupant protection products.

In my Green Autopia article Ford says it also incorporated soy foam-based seatings in its 2008 Mustang sports car.

Below is my full interview with Ford’s Deborah Mielewski, polymer technical leader, research and advanced engineering, regarding the company’s goal towards the use of renewable chemicals and products in their automobiles.

Q: What are the factors driving the company to use renewable products in their automobiles?

It has been Ford’s long-term goal to replace some of the traditional petroleum-based materials with plant-based, renewable materials. There is approximately 300 lbs of plastic on each vehicle that we make, so making strides in this direction can reduce our dependency on foreign oil and begin a transition to more sustainable materials. In addition, life cycle analyses have shown that the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere can be considerably lower for the plant-based materials than their petroleum derived counterparts. The ultimate goal for Ford is to reduce the environmental footprint of our vehicles. Some of these materials actually compost, so the landfill problems associated with plastics can also be eliminated.

Q: Aside from soy polyols and biofuels/alternative fuels, what other renewable materials the company is currently using in their automobiles?

We have implemented some natural fiber substrate materials for door panels and seat backs on some of our vehicles. But there aren’t too many other natural-based materials that have been developed to meet the rigorous requirements that we have in automotive. That’s really the research objective of my group–to develop the materials that we think we can implement in our vehicles for particular applications. Currently, we are looking at many natural fiber composites, poly(lactide) resins and other soy foam applications–some with shorter-term application, some with longer-term.

Q: What are the challenges the company currently face in using renewable materials and alternative fuels?

I already mentioned that the materials we need usually don’t exist, so we need to research and develop them specifically for certain automotive applications. In addition, the supply chain can also be early in its development, or non-existent. For example, in some of our natural fiber work, we had to develop a chopper to cut the fibers to our desired length, and also invent fiber distribution methods to get the fibers evenly distributed in the plastic. That’s a lot of work just to get the data to evaluate a material. The natural fibers had issues with odor and moisture absorption, which also needed to be creatively addressed. And, all of these challenges need to be overcome without making the material too cost prohibitive.

Q: Describe the company’s ultimate green car and how feasible is its development?

My group is excited to be working in this area at this time. With petroleum prices skyrocketing and with environmental concerns, we think that we can make a difference in reducing the environmental footprint of our vehicles. The “ultimate green materials” car would utilize sustainable and lightweight (improve fuel economy) plastics that would be durable, functional and attractive for the lifetime of the vehicle, and then would be compostable in a short period of time thereafter. We have to remember that the current plastic materials on vehicles have been optimized over the past 50+ years, so we’re not going to get there overnight. But if we continue to research, develop and implement these materials one at a time, we’ll get there.

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