Ford Aims to Clear the Air, in Ways Big and Small

Ford Motor Company has been ramping up its sustainability footprint in the last couple years, making sure that we, the press/blogosphere, are aware of its efforts on a range of environmental initiatives (and no, not all car companies do that — I can’t remember the last time I saw an eco-friendly press release from Chrysler).

Alan Mulally, Ford’s CEO since 2006, and his predecessor, William Clay Ford II, have both been outspoken about their commitment to environmental improvement, and that commitment is no doubt behind many of the changes taking place there.

The latest of which is the Dearborn MI-based company’s move into compostable and plant-based materials. Last week, Ford announced that the 2011 Ford Explorer, once the poster child for America’s obsession with gas-guzzling SUVs, will feature soy-based foam in its chairs (and get 25% better MPG).

The Explorer is the 23rd Ford model to feature the soy foam instead of petroleum-based stuff; the Taurus, Mustang and F-150 all use it as well. Using soy-based foam has helped the company reduce its petroleum use by 3 million pounds annually and carbon dioxide emissions by 11 million pounds.

Ford is also doing something about air quality on a smaller scale. Starting with the Mercury Milan, Ford Fusion and Lincoln MKZ, the company has begun installing high-quality air filters in its cars, and plans to expand the number of models with the allergen-reducing filters later this year.

Somewhere, deep underground in Michigan…

Corporate titans like Ford have enormous R&D departments where some of the really smart, quiet people you knew in high school end up, perfecting things like soy-based foam and wheat-straw fibers for dashboards and moldings. has an excellent interview with one of them: Debbie Mielewski, technical leader of Plastics Research at Ford.

After expelling the usual airy sustainability jargon at the start of the interview, Mielewski gets down to the nitty-gritty of all the challenges in turning natural materials (aside from petroleum) into plastics that are safe and durable enough to use in a car. The first soy-based foams unfortunately smelled like vegetable oil, and had the tendency to stiffen and crumble — not ideal characteristics for a seat cushion.

Mielewski and her team had to figure out how to “strip” the veggie smell from those Mustang seat cushions, which they did, patenting a new process for “functionalized soy bean oil,” whatever that means. Compostable plastics are proving a harder nut to crack. Mielewski said they do not currently meet Ford’s requirements for performance or durability, but “hold promise for the future.”

Mielewski stated in a press release that “one day I hope to see the automotive world go totally compostable, removing the use of petroleum-based parts 100 percent.” Whatever the sustainability claims coming from the executive suite, it is reassuring to know that there are people like Mielewski problem solving environmental challenges on the ground floor (and kudos to the people in charge for giving her the time and resources to do so).

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.

Leave a Reply