Soybeans could have a prominent role in vehicles of the future — and it's not just through biodiesel. Ford Motor Company is researching expanded use of soy-based flexible foams in their automobiles. Polyurethane foams are the primary component of vehicle seat cushions, seat backs, armrests and head restraints.

While many in the auto industry are experimenting with replacing 5% of the standard petroleum-based polyol with a soy-derived material to create the foam used in vehicles, Ford researchers have formulated the chemistry to replace 40% of the standard polyol with soy-based polyol. And they are doing it without compromising the durability, stiffness or performance of the foam, while using a product that is earth-friendly.

ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT

Debbie Mielewski, technical leader for Ford's Materials Research & Advanced Engineering Department, reports that an average of 30 lbs. of petroleum-based foam is used in each vehicle produced. That adds up to 3 billion pounds of petroleum-based foam per year in the U.S. market, and 9 billion pounds worldwide.

Because of the volume, Mielewski says there's great incentive for auto manufacturers to consider and research other renewable, more environmentally friendly materials to produce the foam. “A soy-based foam conserves natural resources and reduces our environmental footprint,” she says.

Initial projections estimate that using a soy-based foam at high volumes could save the auto industry up to $26 million. Soy polyols have only one-quarter the level of total environmental impact of petroleum-based ingredients, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

RESEARCH TO REALITY

Ford's breakthrough research in developing the higher concentration soy-based polyurethane foams has received checkoff funding from the United Soybean Board (USB) for the past three years. Now that the concept is reality, Ford is working with other organizations and suppliers to quickly bring these innovative technologies to the mainstream. Several companies have already expressed interest in licensing them.

The actual foam is created by combining the 40/60 blend of soy- and petro-based polyol with an isocyanate cross-linking agent and nine other additives in precise combinations.

Through extensive testing of high and low soy percentages, Ford researchers found that a 40-50% soy substitution produced a product with properties most similar to the 100% petroleum-based polyol foam used for automotive seating applications.

Presently, Ford has applied for two patents, one for high-content soy foam formulations and the other for a novel, low-odor process to synthesize the soy polyols.

The development of these new processes is expected to bode well for future use of soy-based products. Todd Allen, chair of USB's New Uses Committee, says, “When the first soy foams are introduced on Ford vehicles, the use of soy polyols will snowball to other industries such as agricultural equipment, recreational vehicles, office furniture cushioning and other automotive components.”

NEAT TO KNOW

  • FORD MOTOR COMPANY'S research of possible applications for soybean products dates back to its early years. For instance, the Model T once contained 60 lbs. of soybeans in its paint and molded plastic parts.

  • FORD SHOWCASED ITS industry-leading work with soy foams in 2003 on the Model U concept vehicle, which featured soy-based seat cushions as well as a soy-based resin composite tailgate.