Soy Seats and Corn Upholstery: Ford's Biomaterials Researchers Really Do Have a Better Idea

By John O'Dell December 27, 2007

Foam Researchers Deborah Mielewski, Cynthia Flanigan and Christine Perry.

 Christine Perry, they say, cooks up a mean chocolate cake.

But the Ford Motor Co. materials scientist is busier these days working on foam for car seats.

Her laboratory concoctions do have one thing in common with her culinary triumphs though: both use renewable plant materials grown in the U.S.

For her cakes, it's flour from wheat and sugar from cane; for her foam, it's oil from soybeans.

Perry, one of the five scientists—the others are chemical engineers -- who make up Ford's biomaterial research team, is part of an ongoing project that aims to replace petroleum-based ingredients in polyol foam – the firm but pliable stuff that cradles your seat when you are sitting in a car – with natural chemical ingredients from renewable resources.

"Initially, no one believed this could be done," said plastics research technical team leader Deborah Mielewski. "But we have the luxury of being in a research group, so we can tackle things that don't appear doable at first." The team's soy foam made its debut in the 2008 Mustang and now is used in seat foam in the '08 F-150 pickup and  Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator SUVs as well. It next will appear beneath the upholstery of the 2009 Ford Escape.

And this month Ford signed a deal with farm-equipment manufacturer Deere & Co. and its seating supplier, Sears Manufacturing Co., to further develop flexible soy-based seat foam for farm equipment and medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
Ford won't share all the details yet, but says the chemistry developed by its biomaterials team can replace up to 40 percent of the petroleum-based polyol used in seating materials with soy-based oil.

In addition to replacing petroleum, the use of the soy oil reduces carbon dioxide emissions that would have been created in production of standard seat foam.

For the 2008 Mustang seats, which used 2.2 million pounds of the soy foam, Ford figures the CO2 reduction at 605,000 pounds.

Soy seats are the first but certainly not the only "green" product Ford research's all-female biomaterials team is working on, Mielewski says.

Chemist Ellen Lee is developing "MuCell" plastics (it stands for microcellular) by injecting microscopic nitrogen or carbon dioxide gas bubbles into liquid plastic just before it is injected into molds to make things such as inner door panels. 

"It expands in the molten plastic into microbubbles that displace some of the plastic," she explains.

"The contribution is that it uses less plastic, speeds up the manufacturing process.  Ford already is using MuCell plastic in the cooling fan blades on its 15-passenger vans, Lee said.

In another part of the team's lab on the second floor of one of Ford's research buildings, Angela Harris is working on replacing glass fibers with natural fibers in compression and injection molded plastics.

"We are getting weight reduction, using less petroleum-based material and getting an interesting visual appearance," Harris said.

In a prototype plastic reinforcing panel for a car fender, replacing the glass fibers with natural fiber reduced the panel's weight by 40% without a measurable reduction in strength, she said.

The visual qualities of the natural fibers have brought the bio-fibers project to the attention of Ford's designers, who are always seeking new materials and new looks for the vehicles they are developing.

Among the materials she's experimenting with are fibers from hemp, wheat straw, Indian grass and various types of wood.

Natural fibers in a clear matrix can replace materials such as carbon-fiber textured plastics, wood veneers and other surface materials, Harris said.

She's also working on plastics derived from corn, sweet potatoes and other plant material.

"Our goal is to come up with a corn-based plastic that's reinforced with natural fibers," said Harris.

"It would be completely biodegradable. The challenge is to make it work for automotive applications so that it lasts as long as the vehicle does and doesn't biodegrade while in use."

Take the projects all six of the biomaterials scientists are working on and you might end up with something like the environmental car-seat prototype they've developed in conjunction with Lear Corp.

It sits in the corner of the lab, neatly labeled:  Soy-based foam; corn-based fabric for the upholstery and headliner, plastic seat clips from recycled water bottles and side panels made of cane-based plastic.

Add to that a dash and door panels trimmed with natural fiber veneers, lightweight MuCell plastic reinforcing and trim pieces throughout and Ford's claim to a better idea begins to sound like a little more than just a 1960s advertising slogan.

Accomplishing it all won't be easy, but, as Mielewski said, neither was the initial task of making seat foam from soybeans.

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