Dr. Deborah Mielewski: Greening automobiles from the inside out

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Henry Ford:

“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.

0ef9196.jpgLuckily, 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:

  • SoyFoam-sm.jpgStarting with the Mustang in 2007 and now present in all of Ford’s vehicles built in North America, Ford uses soy-based foam in seat cushions, backs and in 75% of head rests (pictured right). This adds up to 31,215 soybeans for every vehicle, or over 5 million pounds per year. The soy foam replaces petroleum-based foam, reducing saving approximately 20 million pounds of CO2 annually and reducing ozone depleting Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) by 67%.
  • Since 2010, Ford’s Flex cars have been produced with wheat straw reinforced storage bins—creating a market for another agricultural waste product and reducing CO2 emissions by 30,000 lbs annually (pictured bottom left).
  • Beginning in 2012, the Ford Focus electric car contains trunk mats made from coconut fibers—yet another agricultural waste product.
  • Since 2014, Ford’s popular F150 trucks contain rice husk reinforced plastic in their electrical harness. Rice husks, or the shells, are a waste product, so using them creates a market for  45,000 lbs of the material per year, all sourced from farms in Arkansas.
  • Also in 2014, tree-based cellulose (a byproduct of the lumber industry) replaced fiberglass in structural armrests in the Lincoln MKX (pictured bottom right).
  • In partnership with Coca-Cola, Ford has demonstrated the use their PlantBottleTM technology—a PET plastic made from renewable sources—to create automotive fabrics, carpet and headliners for the Ford Fusion Energi.
  • Other materials Mielewski’s team are reviewing include using shredded U.S. currency as a composite(appropriately) in coin trays, tomato skins from Heinz to make car wiring brackets and storage bins, and hemp fibers in armrests and center consoles.

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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