“For a long time now, I have believed that industry & agriculture are natural partners & that they should begin to recognize & practice their partnership. Each of them is suffering from ailments which the other can cure. Agriculture needs a wider & steadier market; industrial workers need more steadier jobs. Can each be made to supply what the other needs? I think so. The link between is Chemistry. In the vicinity of Dearborn we are farming twenty thousand acres for everything from sunflowers to soy beans. We pass the crops through our laboratory to learn how they may be used in the manufacture of motor cars &, thus provide an industrial market for the farmers' products."
Source: Ford News, p.49, March 1933
When you go out to buy a shiny new Ford, you may be thinking about fuel efficiency, but you probably are not thinking about what the foam in your seat is made out of.
Luckily, Dr. Deborah Mielewski is. She is the senior technical leader of the plastics research group at Ford Motor Company Research. Carrying on in the same vein as the company’s founder (see side panel), Mielewski has successfully researched, developed and implemented a number of innovative materials made from a wide variety of agricultural and recycled products.
From soybeans in your seat to wheat straw in your storage bins to coconut fiber in your trunk liner to rice husks in your car’s electrical assembly—there is no shortage of ideas her team is working on.
Mielewski has Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and has been working at Ford for 28 years.
She first brought her ideas to the executives at Ford in 2001 (and got immediate support from Bill Ford, then CEO and Henry Ford’s great- grandson), but it took until the price of oil started to rise to gain traction broadly both within and outside the company. Today, Ford has a sustainability vision that states that “recycled or renewable materials will be selected whenever technically and economically feasible.” Ford also makes it clear that renewable resources should not compete with the food supply—addressing a common concern surrounding the growth of biobased feedstocks. Many of the materials are waste or byproducts of the food industry like rice and oat hulls.
So far, many bio-based products have passed the test of being technically and economically equivalent (or better) for a number of different applications on vehicles. The average vehicle contains 17-19% by weight plastics, textiles and natural materials. The use of plastics has been driven by the desire to decrease the overall weight of the vehicle in order to increase fuel economy. It is in this area Mielewski and her team have been hard at work innovating.
The average Ford vehicle today uses 20-40 pounds of renewable materials. Examples include:
Deborah Mielewski will be a keynote speaker at the 19th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in Bethesda, Md. this July 14-16.
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