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Ryan E. Day


Engineering a Sustainable Future, Part 1

Ford Motor Co. puts the pedal to the metal on alternative materials

Published: Monday, December 7, 2015 - 16:15

The words “plastic,” “polymers,” and “environmental responsibility” rarely bump consonants in the same sentence, but public sentiment and keen competition can nudge a company into exploring all kinds of plastic substitutes. Of course, a $160 price tag on a barrel of oil is also rather compelling. So much so that the oil price shock of 2007, which saw prices climb to those astounding heights, breathed new life into Henry Ford’s original vision of “growing” automobiles.

Within a year of the oil price spike, one of Ford’s first green engineering wonders rolled off production lines: soy-based foam tucked into the seats of the 2008 Ford Mustang.

Ford has, in fact, been working on plant-based plastics since at least 2000. The team charged with the daunting task is now led by Deborah Mielewski. Mielewski already had a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering when she was hired on at Ford in 1986. Intuiting great potential in Mielewski, the company encouraged her to further her education in chemical engineering, and she then earned first her master’s degree and then her Ph.D. The proof of Ford’s acumen is in the soy-based pudding, so to speak.

Deborah Mielewski, senior technical leader, materials sustainability, Ford Motor Co. Research

“Originally I began working with peats, then polymer processing, and then plastic materials,” says Mielewski. “But then all my great mentor scientists retired, which left me holding the plastic bag. So I decided that to feel good about the environmental aspect of plastics I would have to change the portfolio to include more recycled and plant-based materials. I didn’t expect it to be easy, but then again, the invention of petroleum-based polymers took many years as well.

“Part of the formula to our success with this movement is that we embrace the knowledge that there’s going to be a lot of work and sustained effort,” explains Mielewski. “I think that with some creativity and some resources and time we’re learning that we really can solve a lot of our environmental plastic issues. I get really excited when I see some of these companies collecting plastic from the gyres in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans and recycling that material. We’re learning that we can use CO2 to make a polymer. These technologies may not be efficient at the moment, but there are a lot of very smart people working on them.”

Many so-called “waste” materials—such as biowaste from industrial food processing—have value as an applied resource, but are burned or discarded.

Always keeping one eye on the future, Henry Ford once said, “Someday you and I will see the day when auto bodies will be grown down on the farm.” Henry did indeed build a prototype vehicle featuring body panels that incorporated plant fibers. The level of interest in the value of these formerly overlooked byproducts was evident in 2012 when Ford, along with Coca-Cola, Heinz, NIKE, and Procter & Gamble, announced the formation of the Plant PET Technology Collaborative. This strategic working group focused on accelerating the development and use of 100-percent, plant-based PET materials and fiber in their products. PET, also known as polyethylene terephthalate, is a durable, lightweight plastic used by all these companies in a variety of products and materials, including plastic bottles, apparel, footwear, automotive fabric, and textiles.

“I didn’t realize companies like Coca-Cola would have similar materials and technical evaluation issues,” says Mielewski. “When scientists from these different companies got together, the excitement was incredible. Why struggle on your own when there are people out there with the same outlook? One of the things we’ve learned from this journey is to work with industries outside of the automotive sector to talk about what their ‘waste’ products are. Maybe their waste will be your treasure and vice versa.”

 “Another key issue in the life cycle of materials that we look at is how far are the raw materials from our processing and manufacturing plants?” asks Mielewski. “We’ve learned how important it is to use materials that are both local and not a food source.”

Ford put that wisdom to good use first with its now famous soybeans-to-foam coup showcased in the 2008 Mustang, manufactured in Michigan with soybeans grown in the Midwest.

The same strategy was wisely employed in Ford’s wheat straw project. Officially known as the Bio-Car Initiative, the program was funded by the Canadian government and included four Canadian universities, a tier one supplier, and Ford as the original equipment manufacturer (the company has a Ford Flex manufacturing plant in Oakville, Ontario). This project focused on waste straw generated by Canadian wheat production. The region is too cold for composting to be viable and burning the straw stubble is increasingly frowned upon and even outlawed in some areas.

“In 18 months we went from conception to delivery of storage compartments that have 20-percent wheat straw in them,” explains Mielewski. “What that means is that the alternative material is grown, processed, molded, and installed right there in Canada. The logistical and therefore environmental gains are significant. It’s important for industry to start prioritizing what we want to accomplish. There is no single perfect technology to address every problem on the planet.”

The willingness to explore multiple solutions is refreshing. Now that Ford’s teams have cracked the initial oil-to-foam technique with soybeans, it will be that much easier to adapt the technology to other plant-sourced oils that are plentiful in other parts of the world. Certainly a long-term approach but commendably sensible.

“My whole objective has been to move the needle forward, taking small steps that are environmentally positive,” adds Mielewski. “I’m the luckiest person alive to be able to match the passion I have for helping the environment with my job and the company’s mission. It’s fantastic, and I can’t wait to go to work every day!”

Part 2 of this series "Delta Products' new U.S. headquarters raises the LEED bar to nosebleed levels" can be found here.


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.