Ford Motor Company’s biomaterial researchers have engineered a patent-pending formula to use renewable soy oil to improve rubber car parts and make them more environmentally friendly.

By using renewable soy oil as a 25% replacement for petroleum oil, Ford researchers more than doubled rubber’s stretchability and reduced its environmental impact. Soy-based rubber parts such as radiator deflector shields, air baffles, cupholder inserts and floor mats are under consideration for future Ford vehicle programs.

“Ford is focused on finding innovative ways to make our vehicles more eco-friendly,” says Cynthia Flanigan, Ford technical leader in elastomeric polymers. “Soy-based rubber has win-win potential as it provides superior stretchability and serves as a renewable resource that helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions from raw materials.”

Beyond soy oil
The scope of Ford’s recent rubber research, which was funded in part by grants from the United Soybean Board (USB), included the use of soy fillers (flour, meal) as well as soy oils.

Ford researchers found that soy fillers could provide an inexpensive and environmentally friendly partial replacement of carbon black, a petroleum-based material traditionally used to reinforce rubber. Used together, soy oil and soy fillers could replace up to 26% of the petroleum-based content in automotive rubber applications.

While rubber’s role in automotive applications is generally not a glamorous one, it is significant. According to the International Rubber Study Group, the automotive sector accounts for more than 50% of worldwide rubber consumption, which exceeded 22 million metric tons in 2008. Automotive rubber usage is expected to rise more than 4% through 2013.

Sustainable solutions
Ford is a pioneer in the use of biomaterials in vehicles. Ford was the first automaker to demonstrate that soy-based foams could be formulated to pass stringent requirements for automotive applications, starting with seats for the 2008 Ford Mustang and headliners for the 2010 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner. The new 2011 Ford Explorer will become the 23rd model to feature soy foam.

With bio foam on more than 2 million vehicles, Ford has annually reduced its petroleum oil usage by more than 3 million pounds and its carbon dioxide emissions by 11 million pounds.

The use of soy content in automotive applications also supports American farmers. USB, which oversees investments of all U.S. soybean farmers for research and promotion efforts, works closely with Ford in an effort to get soy-based technology commercialized.

“USB remains committed to funding the research, development and commercialization of new industrial uses for soybeans, and works with companies like Ford to leverage industry research dollars,” says Marty Ross, USB new uses committee chair and a soybean farmer from Delmar, DE. “Use of soy-based products reduces the U.S. dependence on imported oil and decreases the country’s use of petrochemicals.”

Ford also is looking at the use of other renewable sources for foam, including grape seed and sunflower oil. In addition to bio foam, the company is working with post-consumer recycled resins to make underbody systems, post-industrial recycled yarns for seat fabrics, repurposed nylon carpeting made into nylon resin and molded into cylinder head covers and wheat straw-reinforced plastic parts.

“By increasing the use of recycled or renewable content and reducing the use of undesirable materials whenever possible, we’re helping to reduce waste to landfills by millions of pounds – and we’re doing it around the world,” says John Viera, Ford’s director of sustainability and environmental policy.

The use of recycled or renewable content is making a positive impact on the environment and Ford’s bottom line. In 2009, Ford reduced the amount of automotive-related plastics to landfills by nearly 30 million pounds and saved approximately $4.5 million by reusing recycled materials.

Quick facts:

  • Ford’s researchers find that using renewable soy oil as a 25% replacement for petroleum oil more than doubles rubber’s stretchability and reduces its environmental impact.
  • Ford’s biomaterial researchers are applying for a patent for soy oil-based rubber that can be used in automotive parts such as deflector shields and baffles, radiator deflector shields, cupholder inserts and floor mats.
  • Ford previously pioneered the use of soy oil in foam for seat cushions, seatbacks and vehicle headliners; there are more than 2 million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles on the road today with bio-based foam content.