Your Next Car Might Literally Be Made of Money

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By Diana Budds / Published by Dwell
Tomato fiber, retired currency, and used cigarette filters are just a few of the things researchers are thinking about when they're developing greener materials. Delve into the material science behind automotive design.

In our February issue, we discussed material innovations that will impact residential design. Breaking research often begins in the aeronautical, industrial, or commercial fields and then trickles down to the products you use everyday in your home. For example Gore-Tex, the ubiquitous water-resistant textile found in outdoor apparel, originated from research on how to better insulate wire.

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Dr. Deborah Mielewski helms plastics research at Ford and established the automaker's biomaterials department in 2001. Her work involves finding new ways to find natural substitutes for petroleum-based materials. Her team has been instrumantal in introducing and developing soy-based polyurethane foam, nylon carpeting made from post-consumer waste, plastic reinforced with wheat straw, fabrics made from recycled denim, and more.

"When my mentors retired and I became the leader of plastics research, I have to admit, I felt a little uncomfortable with the role," Mielewski says. "I viewed myself as an environmentalist, and knew that most environmentalists detested plastic. It ends up in the ocean, filling landfills and never going away. Yet, it is an important material for modern life. I thought to myself that if I could make an impact on making plastics better for the environment that I would really be doing something valuable."

As the demands of residential interiors change and designers are looking for new ways to create long-lasting, durable, and attractive materials, the research in other fields is closely watched.

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Though Mielewski established the formal biomaterials department in 2001, working with these materials wasn't new territory for Ford. Case in point: the 1941 concept car made using soybean resin.

Over the past few years, the automotive industry has been studying ways to build with sustainable materials. Dr. Deborah Mielewski is the technical leader of plastics research at Ford and one scientist who's leading the charge. A 28-year veteran at the company, Mielewski founded the automaker's biomaterials program in 2001 and it's thanks to her work that soy-based foam is used in nearly every vehicle Ford produces in the United States. Dr. Mielewski sheds some light on her work below. "The way we see it is that the benefits to our environment can be magnified if more industries use bio-based materials," she says.
 
How did you develop your area of focus at the company?

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Discovering new ways to turn agricultural waste into materials is a key area of interest to Dr. Mielewski and her team. For example, they're uncovering ways to use the stems, seeds, and peels Heinz discards when producing ketchup.

I started working at Ford back in 1986, when I was hired to develop methods to determine the durability of paint, or coating. I made the jump to plastics and plastics processing in 2000 when my mentors retired and I took over plastics research.

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"In 2012, the Fed shredded 7,000 tons of retired currency—this is a high quality cotton/linen blend, and makes quite a nice reinforcing fiber for plastic," Mielewski points out. She's researching ways to utilize this material.

At first, I felt uncomfortable leading an area that most environmentalists hated—plastic ends up in the ocean, filling landfills, and never going away—but I quickly realized the incredible opportunity around the idea of making plastics better for the planet and it was that notion that pulled me in and really how the project was "born." I thought to myself that if I could make an impact on making plastics better for the environment that I would really be doing something valuable.
 
What is the materials research lab at Ford like?
 
The materials research department currently has about 60 people. They work on a wide variety of materials including steel, high-strength steel, aluminum, magnesium, composites, paint, and plastics. Our mission is to look forward and identify the needs of the company 10-15 years out. The plastics effort has been focused on the development of sustainable materials for the past 15 years. We have researched many, many plastic/fiber combinations, and have launched eight materials into production vehicles. The group size fluctuates, but there is usually around 8-10 people who are dedicated to this effort at a given time. We also have engineers engaged in our product development and have support from World Headquarters to set the sustainable materials mission as well as to help us achieve our priorities.  

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In terms of recycled materials that are currently found in Ford's vehicles, repurposed cotton is used as a sound dampener and padding for dashboards.

Our laboratory is a classic research facility. We have the capability to grind, extrude and injection mold plastic specimens. We can also characterize materials by things like their stiffness and strength; we then test specifically for automotive needs, like high-speed impact and low-temperature impact performance.

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This infographic shows exactly where recycled and bio-based materials are found in the 2015 Ford Fusion.

What are some examples of the most interesting research you’ve conducted? Any really off-the-wall experiments, or uunconventional materials that you’ve considered?

Tomato fiber and retired currency are unlikely fillers for plastics, but there are massive amounts of these materials available with limited developed uses. In 2012, the Fed shredded 7,000 tons of retired currency—this is a high quality cotton/linen blend, and makes quite a nice reinforcing fiber for plastic. Heinz, in a similar vein, squeezes over two million tons of tomatoes each year.  

We do a lot of "off the wall" experiments, and the group does make good fun of my obsessions with certain materials.  I carried around a bag of used cigarette filters for months before I found someone willing to open the bag and mix it with plastic. Recently, I’ve been speaking a lot about mustard seed oil and agave keeps coming up. Agave fiber is left over from making tequila. You never know, any of these might work and reduce our environmental impact even more.  


How do you typically experiment and work with new materials?

We are not only creating new materials, we are also closely following the research happening in the space at large.

In our labs, we house the standard polymer processing and equipment, so we can extrude plastic pellets, injection mold test bars and small parts as well as assess the materials we generate. Once we feel confident about a material, we generally start working with our suppliers to not only scale up, but to also get them comfortable with the materials.

We also have a highly collaborative approach, because we see the incredible value in bringing together key stakeholders in the wider community. Really we work with almost anyone who is interested, from farmers to universities, and lately other large corporations with similar environmental visions, we all work together with the aim of bringing bio-technologies to fruition more quickly. Currently through what we call the PTC (PET Technical Collaborative), we are working with Coca-Cola, Nike, Proctor and Gamble, and Heinz to create a 100-percent bio-based PET (a type of plastic).

 
What are the specific challenges in creating materials for the automotive market?  

We need incredible durability in the materials we use. We expect that the materials will perform exactly the same over a 10-15 year lifespan of a car. This is totally different from the requirements of, say, plastics packaging. Seat cushions must rebound after repeated compression as well as heat and humidity exposure. Cars have to perform at temperatures ranging from -22 to 300 degrees Farenheit.

Every bio-based material we evaluate must perform as well or better than the petroleum based plastic we are replacing—if it doesn’t, we won’t use it. When we are successful, the customer satisfaction won’t be compromised and we reduce our impact on the planet. Many visible plastics in the interior have to have "Class A" appearance. This is difficult to achieve with some of the bio-based fillers.
 
What qualities do you try to prioritize when developing new materials?

First things first, the material must meet every requirement for durability and performance. Second to this, reduced weight is a highly desired trait, since it is a large factor in improved life cycle performance through improved fuel economy. Third, the life cycle analysis must show that there is an environmental improvement over the incumbent material, so that we are impacting the environment in a positive way. Once all these key elements are evaluated, we lastly look at the cost ensuring that it is competitive with the material we are replacing.
 
What new material research is most interesting to you?

I am intrigued by fast-growing plants like algae and bamboo for a number of reasons. Looking at algae first: it reproduce itself up to four times a day and some companies have learned how to grow it in the dark. It’s an organism that would not be dependent on being grown outside, meaning it could be produced in chemical tanks.   

The capabilities of bamboo are tremendous as well; over the course of just 24 hours, the plant can grow several feet. The reason I’m so focused on growth potential is because such fast-growing plants would mean that there would be grand availability. So far, these materials have shown promise as plastic materials and reinforcements and we are excited to continue working with them.
 
Another area we have a marked interested in is agricultural waste products. We've been able to utilize wheat straw, or the part of the plant left after the food portion is removed, in the storage bins of some of our vehicles. The wheat straw-filled bins provide a new revenue stream for farmers, lower our carbon dioxide emissions, and replace a talc reinforcement mineral mined from the earth. On top of all this, they are also lighter in weight. We also see value in fostering a local story, with for instance, wheat being collected at farms in Ontario, Canada, and assembled onto the Ford Flex built in Oakville, Ontario. We’ve learned that we can further reduce environmental impact by utilizing what is locally available and minimizing shipping of materials and parts all over the country, and all over the world.
 
Do you see any of the materials you’re developing for Ford transitioning into the residential market?  

We’re already seeing materials we’ve developed transitioning into the residential market. Soy-based foam has made its way into the mattress, buildings, office, and home-furnishing industries. We’ve even worked with John Deere to develop soy foam for tractors and other agricultural equipment that has not hit the market yet.

Automotive requirements for materials are some of the toughest. We have to last for 10-15 years at high under-hood temperatures; low temperatures (e.g. Alaska, -40 degrees Farenheit); as well as dry (e.g. Arizona) and humid (e.g. Florida) climates.  If the materials can endure those testing requirements, they can be used almost anywhere, so returning to that same spirit of collaboration I spoke to earlier, we work with and share our knowledge with whoever is interested in our "green" materials. The way we see it is that the benefits to our environment can be magnified if more industries use these materials.
 
When it comes to developing sustainable materials, what are the biggest hurdles?

I'd say the biggest hurdles are around choosing materials that are very inexpensive to do your research on, so that there is room in the business case to launch at cost equivalent on just one vehicle program. The incumbent materials are very high volume, so the cost is often times too hard to match. Getting the supply chain in place is also challenging.

And there are a myriad of technical hurdles. With soy foam, for instance, we had to re-balance the chemical reactions because the soy oil reacted slower than the petrol oil we were replacing. Once we did that, we needed to remove the odor. We have very stringent requirements for odor in cars, and the method had to be cost effective. Once those two hurdles were addressed, we had to figure out how we would alter the chemical plant to accommodate the new soy tank. Lastly, we had to address economic hurdles, since we would be launching soy seats on just one vehicle line (low volume), and we had to be at cost parity to get the "go ahead". When petroleum hit $160/barrel in 2007/8, it really helped us convince everyone that soy was the right thing to do.

For wheat straw–filled plastic, we had to find Tier 2 suppliers to grind the straw to the desired size and mix it with plastic. There was an odor issue there, as well, but it was limited to only when the part was being molded.


Soy-based foam is something that is used a lot today, but that wasn’t always the case. Could you tell us a bit about how you developed the material? Why was foam such an important thing to do "green"?  

This kind of goes back to the hurdles that I outlined when developing soy foam. It was important to do the soy work first because we got a lot of support from the United Soybean Board, New Uses Committee. This group of farmers was looking for new uses for their excess soybean oil. We partnered with them for many years, and they awarded Ford a number of grants to scale up soy-foam from the lab demonstrations to production equipment.

Using soy instead of petroleum is also very positive for the environment. There is a reduction of about 5.5 kg of carbon dioxide emitted for every kilogram of soy polyol used. We currently have soy foam on EVERY North American-built vehicle that Ford makes. We are very proud of that, and that we are reducing CO2 emissions by over 20 million pounds every year just by using soy instead of petrol. To put it in perspective, every Ford vehicle has about 32,251 soybeans in it, out of the 300 pounds of plastic on a vehicle, 10 percent, or 30 pounds, is urethane foam – so, we knew it was an important material to make greener.


Anything else you’d like to add?

Our group really does have one of the most fun jobs in the world (ok, my personal opinion). We have proven that we can do this eight times over, and like I said, it is just the beginning.  These materials have the potential to not just improve the automotive space, but also many other industries.  

We owe a lot of our success to our partners—farmers; universities; Tier 1, 2, and 3 suppliers; governments and other non-competitive companies. Each of these partners, along with Ford, is moving towards the same goal of greener plastics that are better for the planet.