Henry Ford’s Soybean Suit and Other Material Marvels

You’d be surprised at what can be done with what might otherwise seem to be organic waste. Like using it to create car parts

By Gary S. Vasilash

Dr. Deborah Mielewski is a Technical Fellow at the Ford Motor Company.

Two things to know about that: (1) Ford employs about 87,000 people in the United States (more if the people from elsewhere are added, but she works in Dearborn, so we’ll use that number). (2) There are 16 Technical Fellows at Ford.

Yes, she is a rare individual.

She obtained her PhD in Chemical Engineering.

You might be thinking: “Technical Fellow. . .one of 16. . .chemical engineering. . .snooze.”

And were you to be, you’d be wrong.

Mielewski, whose focus is on sustainability, is one of the most enthusiastic and engaging individuals who talks about the environment and recycling and closed-loop processes who isn’t on the Discovery Channel or some outlet like that.

In fact, she probably ought to be.

But for the Earth Day episode of “Autoline After Hours” we have Debbie Mielewski talking about what she and her colleagues are doing in the lab to help make the crossovers, trucks and cars that Ford produces more environmentally sound—and doing so in ways that are not, well, what you might imagine.

One of her earlier undertakings was to develop seat foam using soybean oil. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Henry Ford had been a big proponent in using soybean oil for a number of applications, such as in paint and for body panels.

Ford was once so big on soybean that it built a processing plant on the grounds of the Rouge Complex in Dearborn. (Image: Ford)

The foam that they were creating in the lab took a while to come to a usable form (to say nothing of finding a way to attenuate the rather unpleasant fragrance emitted), but they worked at it and the material debuted on the 2008 Mustang.

Then they’ve had a variety of other atypical materials that they’re using.

She says—at least partially in jest—that while driving home from work one Friday night she thought about having a margarita when she got home. And that she would get in touch with Jose Cuervo on Monday to find out whether there might be some materials they could source (other than tequila, that is).

To obtain the juice that turns into the beverage the heart of the agave plant is roasted, ground and compressed. And then there is a whole lot of plant matter, fibrous, left over. While the Jose Cuervo company uses some of it, as do local artisans, there is still a large quantity left over.

The Ford scientists determined that the fibers are good for plastic reinforcement.

She says she likes coffee. Thinking about that led to the discovery that when coffee beans are roasted, their skin, chaff, comes off. Millions of pounds of the stuff. Ford and McDonald’s are working together to use the chaff as a composite reinforcement material instead of the traditional talc. It is lighter. Better. And is otherwise waste.

Wheat straw. Dandelions. Shredded paper currency. These and a whole lot more are being used and investigated by Mielewski and her team.

She tells a story about telling one of her colleagues to go collect some of the post-processed hemp at a Detroit medical marijuana distributor. (He was a bit reticent. . . .) Another fiber that may have application in automotive component production.

This is a fascinating look at a subject that will become only more important explained by someone who has spent more than 30 years of her career working on it.

Mielewski recalls that early on, when some of her other colleagues from the more traditional product engineering teams looked askance at her presentations, Bill Ford, known for his environmental leadership, had her back. Now the whole approach is becoming more pervasive. And not just on April 22.

“Autoline’s” John McElroy, Christie Truett from Wards Intelligence, Lindsay Brooke of Automotive Engineering and I talk with her.

And you can see it here.

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