Ten years ago, the 2008 Ford Mustang launched with seats made of soybean-based foam. Today, soy foam has saved over 228 million pounds of CO2 from entering the atmosphere; the same as would be consumed by four million trees per year, according to a consumer horticulturist at North Carolina State University.
Ford has used soy foam since the Mustang went into production in late 2007, replacing traditional petroleum-based foam that most industries use. Researching and testing renewable, plant-based alternatives to petroleum-based plastics is something Ford has been committed to since 2000.
“From our labs to our suppliers, incorporating renewable materials into auto parts takes a lot of work, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Executive Chairman Bill Ford. “At Ford, we want to do our part to reduce our impact on the environment, and using more sustainable materials in the vehicle is one of the ways we are doing this.”
Since 2011, every Ford vehicle built in North America uses the soy foam in seat cushions, backs and headrests. It meets the company’s strict requirements as a renewable solution and doesn’t compromise durability and performance. Over the past decade, approximately 18.5 million vehicles have been produced with soy foam in them – that’s over 578 billion bushels of soybeans.
Debbie Mielewski, Ford senior technical leader, has been leading the sustainable materials effort from the beginning, and said it wasn’t easy convincing suppliers to do molding trials; especially when petroleum oil prices were available at a low cost. The United Soybean Board (USB) – a group that oversees investments in soybean innovations nationwide – played an integral role in funding the initial trials, and Bill Ford kept the project moving through all obstacles.
“We may not have ever gone to market with soy foam if Bill Ford had not been at the helm,” Mielewski said. “It was a project that would only move forward with both a visionary and an environmentalist in the driver’s seat, so to speak, and we were lucky to have him there.”
In 2008, when oil prices skyrocketed, the value of soy foam became widely apparent – not only was replacing petroleum-based polyol with soy beneficial to the environment, it could also save the company money.
Mike Youngerberg, Minnesota Soybean’s senior director of development and commercialization, praised Ford Motor Company for playing the checkoff long game.
“Ford taking this product to commercialization is a prime example of the soybean checkoff in action,” Youngerberg says. “It’s a value-added product for soybeans. Because of checkoff investments, a product was created that went through the research at the national level. Ford then took this product and has innovatived it for the long haul.”
Ford worked tirelessly with other industries to help them formulate foams that met their specific requirements, like agriculture, furniture and home goods, allowing them the chance to also incorporate it into their products – stretching the environmental benefits even further.
“We knew that putting farm materials into a performance car like the Mustang could be met with a lot of skepticism,” said Mielewski. “But we also knew that if we succeeded, the foam we created could, over time, make a positive impact.”
After the success of soy foam, Ford began the development of other renewable materials to reinforce plastics in vehicles, including wheat straw, rice hulls and cellulose fibers from sustainably grown trees, coconut fibers and kenaf. The sustainable materials research team is currently working on approximately 20 other unlikely sustainable candidates for auto parts – tomato peels, agave fiber (tequila), recycled U.S. currency, dandelions and algae to name a few. They continue to work with USB to develop soy-based materials for rubber components like tires and gaskets.
“Soy foam was an important first step, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said Mielewski. “There are many more opportunities arising to reduce our environmental impact, and with resources becoming more constrained, it becomes more important that we explore them.”