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AH: Hi everybody. Welcome to today’s Green Talk Podcast on a snowy January day. It’s frigid cold in New Jersey. My guest today is Deborah Mielewski. She is the Polymer Technical Leader of Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford Motor Company, and she’s here to speak today about Ford Motors Green Initiatives. Welcome Deborah.
DM: Thank you very much for talking with us, Anna.
AH: Give us a little background. I mean that’s a mouthful, you know the Technical Leader, Polymer Research Advanced Engineering. What does this all mean?
DM: I’m not sure I understand my title myself. [Laugh.] I have a Bachelor’s [degree], Master’s and PhD in Chemical Engineering, and I am more of a Research Scientist. I lead a group of Engineers, who develop new novel plastic materials for cars of the future. So, that’s how I see my job. [It is] much simpler than the title.
AH: And how long have you been at Ford?
DM: I’ve been at Ford for twenty-two years. I came with my Bachelor’s degree and the Company put me through school for both the Master’s and PhD.
AH: Tell us a little bit about what are these green initiatives that Ford’s sponsoring.
DM: We are working in about every area that we can find sustainable or bio material to take a look at. We have a project in soy foam, which we launched last year on the 2007 Mustang, but basically it’s incorporating functionalized soybean oil into the cushions and seat backs of our vehicles. We are looking at soy meal and soy flour, the other half of soybean, putting that into Composites or plastics to strengthen it, make it stronger or as a filler. We are looking at natural fiber as filler for plastics to replace heavy glass fiber that we traditionally use. Fibers such as hemp, coconut coir, [and] Indian grass that grows on the sides of the roads in United States [and incorporating] any of those into any of the plastic material. We are also looking at long term plastic resins made entirely from vegetable sugar such as corn, sugarcane, and sweet potatoes.
AH: When you mention the natural material, are any of these being used right now?
DM: We started the soy foam project in 2001, and we launched it in 2007. So, it’s not a really quick and easy process. We are inventing and formulating brand new materials, and in order to put them in the car, you have to pass rigorous, rigorous testing, at high temperature, low temperature and long, long term durability requirements. So the soy foam, we worked on it here in the lab for a good five years formulating it, and we finally got it onto the vehicles in 2007 in the Mustang, and now we have it in six vehicle programs.
AM: And is it something that’s going to be [added] to all of the vehicles down the road?
DM: We’ll it certainly has traveled like wildfire. I mean I haven’t seen a material that went from one vehicle in late 2007 to six Ford vehicles. Here we are at the beginning of 2009. So, I’m really proud of the fact that we now have it in six, and it certainly has the potential to be used in other applications in the vehicle as well. So there’s about 30 pounds of foam on a typical vehicle, and the objective is to get a lot of that replaced with soy-based foam.
AH: Now where did this initiative come from? Did this come from the top? Was it something that your team thought of?
DM: In 2000-2001 when we started the program, Bill Ford was the CEO of the Company, and he’s quite an environmentalist so we knew we would have his support for looking at it. I just became the technical leader of Plastics, and sort of struggling with the bad reputation that plastics have on vehicles. And this is one way to sort of tackle that problem is, to look at the sustainable plastic or plastics that tend to degrade or compose. So, I think we started the project here. We had nothing but positive feedback from our management, and so, that’s why the program was allowed to grow and prosper.
AH: Now tell me a little bit about the team that you work with. They’re all women?
DM: People ask me about that all the time. It’s an interesting coincidence, I think, being in automotive for twenty-two years. I rarely worked with one other woman, and in our case, there are six of us that are working on these materials. All women, different backgrounds, some are chemical engineers, some are chemists, and some are material scientists by training, but it’s quite a passionate group. We all have a similar philosophy about the environment and it has been working out just really well.
AH: Are all of you, moms?
DM: Practically all of us, but the youngest member of the group is yet to be a mom. But, I wouldn’t be surprised if that were to happen at some point. We are pretty much all worried about the next generation, the young people in keeping the Earth clean as we possibly can.
AH: Deborah, can you explain to us, what actually is the soy foam? What is it made of? What percentage is soy? What percentage is foam? How do you go about creating this type of foam?
DM: Okay. That’s a very good question. The current traditional seating material that people have in their vehicles is made 100% from petroleum fossil fuel and a non-renewable starting material. And what we did was try to incorporate a portion of hydrolyzed or functionalized soybean oil [into the cushions]. [sic] Even though the cushions as they stand are not a 100% soy, when we started, it was quite an accomplishment to get a drop of soy material into these foams, and still have it meet all of the stringent requirements that we have to. We worked and worked on formulation and with the Mustang, we launched with about 12% of the polyols being replaced by soy. Our objectives within the group are to continue to push the envelope and get more and more soy material into those cushions and other foam applications as well.
AH: What were the problems that you encountered in creating these cushions?
DM: Our initial problems were, the soybean oil reacts more slowly than petroleum based molecule does, and so we had to completely revamp the formulation, adjust catalyst level, adjust blowing agents, change materials to balance those chemical reactions so that the foam wouldn’t just collapse. The other major technical issue was the odor of the soybean materials. It had sort of a rancid popcorn smell, which obviously could not be in a vehicle with the windows up in higher temperatures.
AH: Deborah, one of my questions is when you are using soy as a product, how does that impact the cost of food because soy is in a lot of food products?
DM: That’s a very good question. When we started working on this project, the United Soybean Board came and visited Ford Motor Company, and they talked about the fact that there’s actually an excess of soy beans in the Midwest currently, and there are many acres that were unfarmed. They have a division that actually looked for new applications for soy materials. So, I don’t see it, especially our materials development affecting the price of food in the near future. But one thing I wanted to make sure everybody understood, these chemistries … they are very, very flexible. You can always move to another starting material. So, if you don’t want to use soybean oil, you can use Canola oil in different part of the world where that’s in excess and you wouldn’t affect food prices.
AH: One other question that I had is, I know, I’m very confused about bio-degradable versus compostable. Can you just give us a brief explanation of what that means and what you see that we need in this country to be able to make that a reality?
DM: I think the confusion is there and it should be there because right now we have our standard compost piles in our backyard and everybody understands what that does, breakdowns materials. But as far as durable plastic materials that continue to be developed and utilized, you may need a certain type of microbe to trigger your breakdown of the material, and so that’s something that we are looking at. You want the material to very, very, very durable, and all of a sudden throw it in the compost pile and have it fall apart. You’ll need special triggers probably to do this. So, facilities would have to be generated that will bio-degrade automotive plastics.
AH: Is Ford working on that at all with the state of Michigan, to get a facility like that?
DM: We haven’t made any of those hookups at this point because frankly we don’t have the ultimate key to having these materials stay durable and fall apart. That’s sort of the focus of the work right now. Once we do, then we can think about having facilities that will actually take the materials back and break them down.
AH: Hopefully that will come soon because it seems like the industry is pretty ahead of its time with making bio-degradable, compostable products. The facilities just don’t seem to exist. So, hopefully our governments will start getting aboard … [meaning our] state governments and pushing for these facilities to be open.
DM: I agree. Its brand new novel materials, brand new chemistry, and we are going to need support to make it all work and make it work for the environment.
AH: Deborah, I was reading on the web the other day that soy has played a history in Ford for awhile. Did you ever hear about that with Henry Ford?
DM: Yeah. Henry Ford was the obsessed with soybean research. He had a lab here at the Fair Lane Estate that’s still standing there. He served meals where every single course had soy in it. He wore ties that were made of soy fibers. He was totally fascinated. And I think his main objective was, he felt the partnership between the industry and agriculture, was really, really important. We are starting to think that, in fact he was right, that this partnership between farmers and industry can be a real advantage, and using farmers’ crops in our vehicles is a great idea.
AH: Let’s go back to the soy seat again. Who’s actually making the soy product for you?
DM: We do not make the seats here at Ford Motor Company. We purchase them and put them in our vehicles, but we worked with Lear Corporation to develop the soy seats in the Mustang, and now all our suppliers have a soy-based foam offering. So, after it was demonstrated that it could be done, most of the suppliers now have a product that they have available.
AH: I don’t know if you know this, but has increased employment in any areas of the US because of using these soy based seats?
DM: No. I think we are pretty much replacing petroleum. I don’t know in fact that it has increased any employment within the automotive industry. Now, maybe we increased the amount of soybean grown or utilized. The soy cushions are being used in the furniture industry….the office furniture industry. So we are talking to a lot of people on how to do this in other applications as well.
AH: One of the things that my listeners are pretty worried about is toxic ingredients in their products. Are there any flame retardants, solvents or other VOC’s in the padding?
DM: No, the seat cushions’ polyurethane generally does not have flame retardants. It’s self extinguishing, and it’s not necessary in them. And in the soy-based foam that we launched, we actually had a low VOC surfactant incorporated into the formulation so it lower in volatiles than other foams are.
AH: I wanted to tell my listeners that there’s this terrific You Tube video that’s very short, and it depicts everything that we are talking about today. Tell us a little bit about that video.
DM: Well, it’s been crazy, because if you kind of look at our group, we sort of view ourselves as a bunch of nerdy women, and we’re in the labs, and we are actually mixing chemicals together and making measurements. So, when people talk about scheduling someone to come in with the camera, and do camera work at our group, we were just kind of really surprised about that. But we spent the day with some camera people, and they videoed foams rising in the cup. Just the stuff that we do every single day here in the lab and it is kind of interesting to watch.
AH: Was this done into a commercial as well?
DM: Oh yes. Last March, I was notified by email that they were do a national commercial on the bio materials work. The very next day I think someone picked myself and my family up, and we ended up in California in a limo…the celebrity thing, and we shot a commercial one day. It was just a really, really strange experience for a nerd like me, anyway.
AH: Does your team have a name, like a nickname? Are you guys the bionic women?
DM: Actually we’ve heard, it’s tossed around, and we’ve seen on the Internet, the nickname, Bio Babes, but the women in the group don’t really use that name amongst ourselves. We think it’s kind of amusing though.
AH: So there’s not a calendar in the making of Bio Babes?
DM: Oh, no. [laugh]
AH: I just probably put a thought in your head now, a good fundraiser, the Bio Babes. Now let’s go back to the video for a second. One thing that I didn’t understand, in the You Tube video it talked about how the product is bio-degradable. The seat really is not bio-degradable, because it’s not hundred percent soy. What did I misunderstand with that video?
DM: A seat cushion is a polyurethane foam material, and it’s actually cross-linked so when you take two components and you mix them together, you chemically react them together. That’s what makes it not available for composting. You can’t take apart that bond in a day. I think the confusion is that the video was reviewing all of the technologies that are being developed. Some of them are compostable like the polylactides, polymer resins made from corn. Those can be actually put into a compost heap and will degrade in ninety days versus our traditional plastics, which can take hundred of years to degrade. We’re ready to think about putting those into the lower end applications that don’t have high requirements for automotive but they’re really not durable for ten years in a very hot vehicle, a very humid environment. That’s sort of what the research right now on those materials is, to get them durable and still let them compost at the end of life.
AH: Is there a time line, like a cradle to cradle idea of what’s going happen ten years or fifteen years down the line with these products? I know you just mentioned that you want them eventually to be compostable. If somebody bought a Mustang today, has Ford thought about what’s going happen in fifteen years, to dispose of it? Or is that on the drawing board?
DH: Well you know, we like to see as many of the sustainable materials, [and] as many as the compostable material come on to our vehicles, but it really does take some technical breakthroughs for these things to become durable enough or to perform to the standards that are required for an automobile. So, we work diligently to make those technical breakthroughs here in the labs, and as soon as we are ready, like in the case of the soy foam, we are not going to wait for things to be absolutely positively perfect and we have one hundred percent soy in those cushions. We are going to implement as soon as we can and start taking advantage of those environmental benefits.
AH: The soy has got to be a lot lighter than the foam. Does that make the assembly of the car a lot easier, or lighter, or makes emissions better?
DM: No, actually the soy foam is not lighter. That’s a confusion with the natural fiber technology. Once we functionalize the soybean oil and react it with the isosynate, it’s pretty much identical to the petroleum based materials. The advantages of the soy are lower CO2 emissions because when you’re growing plants you sequester CO2, and that goes into your life cycle analysis. So, that’s an environmental improvement, and the fact that we are using a sustainable material and conserving petroleum. That’s the advantage of the soy materials. The natural fiber materials… you’re taking glass and replacing it with the natural fiber, which is much less dense, and so you use a renewable resource but you have a lightweight component as well, which improves fuel economy. Then third, the PLA resins are compostable. So, they each have their own environmental advantages. They’re just different ones.
AH: Is there any new initiatives that are coming down the pipe, in the next couple of years that you guys are working on?
DM: We’ll we have some things that we would like to implement, and we are working with our programs and with our material people to make sure that we meet every single requirement. You know we really can’t disclose our intentions at this point, but I’m pretty sure that we’ll see some applications being implemented, and our portfolio goes from short term to long term. There are plastics all over the vehicle. It all has different requirements. So, we would like to see things utilized as soon as they possibly can.
AH: And if you had a wish list, like you could see into the future, like ten years down the road, what would you want to see these cars look like?
DM: The horrible thing about plastics is that first of all, you’re using petroleum, and I think, we all agree that it’s probably limited and so we should get away from that. The second thing is once you make a plastic component on a vehicle, it’s intended to last forever and it ends up lasting in the landfill forever. So, all of our long term goals are to eliminate that. You invent a brand new material from a renewable resource and you could compost it at the end of life. So that’s sort of my vision for our vehicle is to put that every place you can imagine on the car.
AH: Do you see any of the other car industries picking it up on what you’re doing?
DM: You know, I think every OEM has green efforts. The thing I think is unique about Ford’s effort is we seem to be interested in every one of them. Where the other OEM’s seem to be very focused on one technology, like the polylactide, compostable resins or natural fiber composites, our group is sort of looking at everything. Not to brag but…
AH: [laugh]. You know you could pat yourself on the backs. That’s fine. It was wonderful talking to you today and I’m very proud of what Ford is doing because it’s great. The Bio Babes, I do think you guys should think about a calendar for self-promotion at Ford.
AH: Thank you so much for coming on today, Deborah, and explaining what Ford’s initiatives are, and we welcome you back on the show anytime.
DM: Thank you Anna. It was a real pleasure talking to you. But I would not hold my breath for that calendar.
AH: [laugh]. Talk to you soon, Deborah.