It was a few weeks ago when Ford Motor Company invited us to take their new Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid for a test drive from Los Angeles out to the storied glamour of Palm Springs, through the desert forest of Joshua Tree and back. During that time we put a few hundred miles on the Fusion Energi, a lithium-ion battery powered system aided with regenerative braking, an energy-efficient combination that made refueling a non-issue for the entirety of our desert land expedition.
The drive was consistently smooth, if mostly uneventful from behind the wheel – the ride a predictable, “everything is comfortable” sedan experience that suits the model’s intended audience (admittedly our tastes lean more toward the latest GT, the ferocious Raptor, or even the zippy hatch Fiesta ST when it comes to Ford’s stable of cars and trucks).
Ironically, it was in “park” when we found ourselves most engrossed by our test car, peppered with details about Ford’s sustainable materials lab and the various inroads they’ve been making incorporating sustainable and renewable materials beyond the conceptual by representatives keen on explaining about the soy foam seats we were leaning against. We wanted to know more, so Ford eventually directed our questions to their resident expert.
Senior Technical Leader of Materials Sustainability Debbie Mielewski heads the auto manufacturer’s laboratory dedicated to the exploration of alternative and renewable sources for existing and future models. She was kind enough to give her time to explain what exactly happens inside this technologies lab and further elaborate about alternative material sources, including a recent partnership converting the remnants of tequila into usable fibers for cars.
What exactly is the role and responsibilities of a Senior Technical Leader of Materials Sustainability?
My team and I are responsible for researching new ways to use renewable and recycled materials to offset petroleum use when producing plastic parts for vehicles, and to reduce the environmental impact of plastics on the planet.
I started the biomaterials program at Ford Research in 2001 and spearheaded the research around using soy-based foam automotive seating. Since introducing soy-based foam cushions on the 2008 Ford Mustang, we have incorporated soy foam seats into every Ford vehicle built in North America. My team continues to pioneer the development of different sustainable plastic materials that meet the most stringent automotive requirements, such as natural fiber-reinforced plastics and polymer resins made from renewable feedstocks.
What type of materials are being integrate into Ford interiors? Where can we find them in the current Ford fleet?
In addition to soy foam, we also use a variety of renewable and recycled materials in our research, including wheat straw to produce storage bins, scrap cotton from blue jeans and t-shirt cuttings for dashboard padding, and kenaf substrates for door panels. Below, is a list of sustainable materials we have used in our research and the vehicles that incorporate them:
- Soy foam: Entire North American lineup, for seat cushions, backs and headrests
- REPREVE recycled, soda/water bottle fabrics: Focus Electric, Fusion, Edge, Explorer, F-150
- Wheat straw: Ford Flex storage bins
- Kenaf: Escape armrest substrate
- Post-consumer waste, recycled plastic bottle for the carpets: Escape, Focus, Fiesta, C-MAX, Transit
- Plant Bottle Technology from Coca-Cola: Fusion Energi (demonstration vehicle)
- Post-consumer cotton from blue jeans: Escape, Fusion, many other programs for sound insulation
- Post-consumer nylon carpeting: Escape, Fusion, Mustang, F-150
- Recycled tire and soy resin gaskets using : F-150, Escape, Mustang, Focus, Fiesta
- Rice hulls in the electrical brackets: F-150
In recent years, we’ve also researched the use of tomato fibers and retired U.S. currency (dollar bills) to offset petroleum use in producing bins and other plastic parts for vehicle interiors, as well as algae oil to further boost the amount of biomaterial content in seat cushions. We’ve partnered with other brands and industries to research use of plant-based materials such as coconut husks and dandelions to produce alternative, lightweight plastics for storage containers, under-the-hood applications and decorative interior elements.
In regards to innovation and emerging technologies addressing greenhouse gases, could you explain Ford’s philosophy about sustainability?
As we continue to move towards becoming an auto and mobility company, we are also evolving our vehicles and production processes to reduce our carbon footprint and deliver benefits to our environment and climate today. Our Blueprint for Sustainability encompasses strategies that address global issues linked to economic development, social sustainability, energy security and environmental sustainability, while also ensuring that we deliver on our pledge to help create a better world.
As such, we continue to improve fuel economy by implementing fuel-efficiency technologies that can be used across our lineup, offering more electrified and other alternative fuel vehicles for our customers. In addition to using more sustainable materials to create our products, we are also actively reducing our facilities’ carbon dioxide emissions, water use, and waste to landfill to minimize our environmental impact at every stage of our operations. I am extremely proud to work on one part of our companies effort to reduce our environmental impact.
Where does Ford see the most opportunity for improvement in manufacturing and also the lifecycle of their vehicles?
We are continuously looking for new ways to improve the sustainability of our products, particularly from a manufacturing perspective. This latest agave announcement (we are partnering with Jose Cuervo to explore the use of agave in our bio-plastics) is an example of our commitment to reduce our environmental impact by making our vehicles and products more sustainable. Through our global sustainable materials strategy, we take a holistic view to the materials used in our vehicles by considering their impacts at every stage of the vehicle’s life cycle. Over the years, we have been able to reduce the number of materials we use in vehicle development and prioritize locally sourced materials to help minimize carbon footprint.
How closely does the sustainability team work with the interior and exterior design team? Is it an ongoing dialogue or does the research lab offer the materials after research is completed.
My team works closely with the different design teams to ensure that new biomaterials undergo all of the necessary tests for each specific application. This is an extensive process to make sure new materials meet all of Ford’s strict safety and quality and performance requirements, while simultaneously testing their properties to identify new potential applications. We are bringing new, interesting materials to the attention of our design teams continuously, and gauging their interest. It is of utmost importance that the materials we research are highly desired and excite the design teams so that they are eager to incorporate them into our vehicles.
Sustainable materials are often cited as the future of consumer products, but is there enough of an infrastructure and sourcing available today to scale?
Today, companies across all industries are increasing their focus on the value of a more circular economy, stimulating the creation of new business streams in previously overlooked areas. By creating products that are designed with lifecycle in mind, companies can gradually put in place the infrastructure needed to handle the collection and repurposing of products that have reached the end of their usable life. I believe there is great business opportunity in developing these businesses, and the new, more sustainable materials can be applied not only in automotive, but in office furniture, home furnishings, building and toy industries, just to name a few.
What’s the predictive timeline for Ford to be building their entire fleet using sustainable materials by 50% and then 100%?
For nearly two decades, we have worked to develop sustainable materials for our products. In North America, soy foam is in every Ford vehicle; coconut fiber backs trunk liners; recycled tires and soy are in mirror gaskets; recycled T-shirts and denim go into carpet backing and insulation; and recycled plastic bottles become REPREVE fabric used in the 2016 F-150 (amongst others). We don’t have a specific implementation plan that we can disclose, but we expect to see bioplastics play an increasingly important role in the overall composition of our vehicles in the near- to medium-term.
These material choices will allow us to lower vehicle weight (improved fuel economy), provide additional revenue streams for farmers, provide new aesthetic options all while reducing our environmental impact and improving our worlds efficient use of resources. Why wouldn’t we do it?
I’ve read about Henry Ford building a soybean car in 1941! Any chance we’ll see Ford refreshing that idea?
Henry Ford was truly a visionary of his time when it came to the use of and his passion for sustainable materials. Although his soybean automobile never made it into the Henry Ford museum’s collections, it remains a good example of innovative design; he was truly way ahead of his time. While we don’t have any specific plans to recreate the “Soybean Car,” we currently use soy-based polyurethane foam in the seat cushions and backs, and most headrests, throughout our entire North American lineup of vehicles.
We think that Henry Ford would be quite proud of where the company is going with his vision.
Disclaimer: The following post was not a paid advertisement, but a test vehicle was provided by the manufacturer for review purposes during a press event.