Is that popcorn? Nope, it’s a batch of freshly made soy-based foam. Ford now uses this bio-based material in every vehicle sold in North America.
Researchers at Ford Motor Co. have been working to replace petroleum-based plastic with renewable alternatives for nearly 15 years. Back in 2000, Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader for sustainable materials at Ford Research, and her team devised a chemical formula to replace petroleum-based automotive foam with foam made from soybean oil.
It wasn’t always easy. As Mielewski explained to a group of journalists in the research lab last week, the first soy-based foam the team tested was “the most miserable, stinky, terrible foam ever. It smelled like burnt popcorn.”
But, she continued, the team had plenty of time to perfect the formula. Why? To put it bluntly: because the rest of the company wasn’t expecting much anyway.
“Way back in 2000, people said: ‘Why the heck do you want to do this? Petroleum is cheap; we’ve been doing it for 50 years with the petroleum-based chemicals. Why would we want to change it?'” Mielewski recalled that she and her colleague Ellen Lee were “thrown out of every conference room in the whole company.”
As the researchers continued their work, it often seemed as if the department wouldn’t live to see the results. But, in the innovative spirit of his great-grandfather, Executive Chairman Bill Ford wouldn’t hear of it. “Every time the project was about to be shut down due to resource constraints, we would hear from behind the scenes that Bill Ford met with somebody and that we were going to keep going,” Mielewski said.
Finally, after years in the laboratory, the team’s hard work paid off. In 2007, Mielewski, Lee and their colleagues completed a soy-based foam that met every specification Ford had in place for its automotive foam. “That’s when the magic sort of happened for us: Oil went from $40 a barrel to over $160 a barrel,” Mielewski continued with a smile. “The phones started ringing off the hook, and they said, ‘You know that really crappy idea? That’s a good idea.'” Click to continue reading »
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