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Ford Developing Bio-Material to Use in Cars

By Darrell Dawsey, FCN

Dr. Cynthia M. Flanigan holds up a small block of yellow foam and wags it under the nose of a visitor to her laboratory at Ford Motor Company's Research and Innovation Center. A sweet odor, not unlike the smell of freshly cut flowers, wafts from the block.

For Flanigan, it may well be the scent of success.

The polyurethane square, made from processed soybean oil and capable of being used as padding in car seats and headrests, is among the latest triumphs for Flanigan and other members of a six-woman research team that has been making major strides in developing natural materials for use in vehicles.

For more than two years, the team has worked with soybeans, hemp, switch grass and a host of other natural products, or "biomaterials," in an effort to develop bio-degradable and environmentally friendly substitutes for the petroleum-based plastics and foams now in cars and trucks. Their work, they point out, is part of the overall strategy by Ford to foster and promote environmental consciousness.

But it hasn't always been simple. Flanigan says that, while the team had early success manufacturing and molding the soy foam, she and her colleagues hadn't been able to beat back the attendant smell.

"The odor has been a problem," said Flanigan. "The foam smells like vegetable oil, which is also made 100 percent from soybean oil. It's not necessarily a bad smell, but people get in their cars and are not used to smelling vegetable oil. But recently, with the soy foams, with new the formulation, we’ve been able to pass the odor requirements."

Flanigan explains that the foam is easy to make and relatively cheap to produce. She says that a switch to the soy-based polyurethane would lessen dependence on petroleum.

"As we see an increase in crude oil prices, there is potential for petroleum prices to keep going up and we might get a better cost advantage with the renewable resource materials," she says. "The second advantage is using a product that grows agriculturally, is a sustainable materials that is renewable. It supports the local crops."

Along with the foams, the other main thrust of the team’s work has been the development of natural fibers as replacement for the fiberglass now used as reinforcement material in sheet molding compounds, which are used in body panels, grill openings and other components.

Dr. Deborah F. Mielewski, the technical leader of the team, explains that natural fiber composites offer numerous advantages over their glass counterparts.

"The natural fibers are certainly less expensive than glass fibers," said Mielewski. "So we expect the cost reduction. We hope that the materials will cost less, and we use a lower mass of materials because it's lighter weight material."

She added that the fibers also offer advantages to workers who have to deal with the glass.

"Glass is difficult to handle, and people suffer respiratory issues when they handle glass," said Mielewski. "So we're hoping that, in the plant, the natural fibers will provide advantages for health."

Dr. Ellen Lee, a technical specialist and another member of the team, says that natural fibers would also be less troublesome for the machinery.

"Glass is very abrasive," Lee said. "And so we expect the maintenance costs for tooling to go down when we switch to natural fibers."

But more far-reaching is the potential impact these biomaterials could have on the future.

Said Mielewski, "These technologies are the right thing to do for the planet, for the company and for the customer. And for your children."