Scientists at Ford Motor Company have formulated the chemistry to replace 40 percent of the standard petroleum-based polyol — used to create the foam used in vehicles for seat cushions, seat backs, armrests and head restraints — with a soy-derived material.

Many in the automotive industry are experimenting with a 5 percent soy-based polyol. “Five percent is relatively easy, a nice walk-before-you-run application, but there really isn’t a solid business case to do it,” says Matthew Zaluzec, a researcher at Ford. “At 40 percent, which was formulated in our lab by our researchers, we have the ability to make a significant impact on the environment while reducing our dependency on imported petroleum.”

Initial projections estimate that using a soy-based foam at high volumes could represent an annual material cost savings of as much as $26 million. As for the potential environmental benefit, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, soy polyols have only one-quarter the level of total environmental impact of petroleum-based ingredients.

Ford introduced soy foams in 2003 with soy-based seat cushions as well as a soy-based resin composite tailgate. Ford’s research of possible applications for soybean products actually dates back to the company’s early years. The Model T, for example, once contained 60 pounds of soybeans in its paint and molded plastic parts.

“Soy is a very green, renewable resource,” says Debbie Mielewski, technical leader for Ford’s research department. “Using a soy-based foam gives us the opportunity to conserve natural resources and reduce our environmental footprint.”

Most automotive manufacturers today use a 100-percent petroleum-based polyol foam. Per year, the U.S. market for this material is 3 billion pounds, 9 billion pounds worldwide. Mielewski says an average of 30 pounds of petroleum-based foam is used in each vehicle produced, making a strong case for auto manufacturers to consider and research other renewable, more environmentally friendly materials to produce the foam.

For some time, Ford researchers had been hitting a roadblock with the 40 percent soy-based foam because of its odd odor, reminiscent of vegetable oil. Ford formulation chemist Christine Perry says that issue is now resolved, thanks to a new synthesis method for soy polyol, developed by Ford. The new process uses room-temperature ultraviolet light instead of high heat and catalysts to make the soy polyol.

“Using high temperatures for the chemical reaction can cause numerous side products, which produce the rancid odor,” says Perry. “It also requires a metal catalyst and more energy. With our process, we have a simple reaction that is readily controlled by time of exposure. Plus, it is inexpensive and reduces the odor.”

Extensive testing of high and low soy percentages revealed that a 40- to 50-percent soy substitution produced a product with properties most similar to the 100 percent petroleum-based polyol foam.

For the past three years, the project has received funding from the United Soybean Board. Todd Allen, chairman of the USB’s New Uses Committee, noted, “We believe when the first soy foams are introduced on Ford vehicles, it will have a snowball effect on the use of soy polyols by other industries such as agriculture equipment, recreational vehicles, office furniture cushioning and other automotive components.”

e-mail:erobinson@farmpress.com