In a move receiving financial support from American soybean growers, Ford hopes to use soy-based polyurethane foam in more than one million vehicles within two years. The move will reduce use of oil-based polyurethanes. Polyurethane foams are used to make seat cushions, seat backs, armrests and head restraints. “We studied from zero to 100 percent, and we went to 12 percent to meet automotive requirements,” says Dr. Deb Mielewski, who has been leading a team focusing on developing new materials for automotive using plant-based products including soy, corn, hemp and other plants.. “We’re studying using more.” The durability and stiffness of the foam is not compromised, says Ford. The average vehicle uses 30 pounds of foam.
Ford has applied for three patents on soy-based polyurethane polyols used in foams: one for high-content soy foam formulations, one for a novel, low-odor process to synthesize polyols and one for the use of soy foam in headrests. Several companies have expressed interest in licensing the technologies. One licensee is John Deere, which first tried soy-based reaction injection molded (rigid) systems about eight years ago. Tier One supplier Lear Corp. has conducted head restraint trials with 40-percent soy foam, measuring how it performs with a variety of production head restraint tools used for Ford vehicles. Bayer is also conducting significant research on the formulation. The project has received funding from the United Soybean Board (USB), a group of 64 farmers/directors that oversees investments in soy-based technologies. The USB has also supported work at Deere.
Ford first used soy-based foams at a 5 percent level in the 2008 Ford Mustang, which was introduced last year. Ford initially said that “Projections estimate that using soy-based foam at high volumes could represent an annual material cost savings of as much as $26 million.” However, Ford now says the switch would be cost neutral. The economics obviously swing as oil and soybean prices fluctuate.
Ford’s use of so-based polyols is a finalist in the SPE Automotive Division Innovation competion. Winners will be announced at a banquet in Detroit Nov. 20.