Just five years ago, the automaker began a modest experiment to make seat cushions with a patented soybean oil product it calls soy polyol. It worked. Now the notion has sprouted.
The company is using the resulting soybean-based foam on seats in the 2008 Ford Mustang, F-150 pickup and Expedition and the Lincoln Navigator SUVs. In 2009, three more models also will contain the soybean cushions, including the Ford Escape crossover, said Matthew Zaluzec, manager of the company's Materials Research & Advanced Engineering Department in suburban Detroit.
At the same time, Ford plans to push the soybean content into other interior components, including headrests, armrests, floor mats, glove box liners and trunk liners.
Dollar signsWhat started as an academic experiment in reducing Ford's carbon dioxide footprint suddenly has turned commercial.
The experiment started in 2003 with $200,000 from the United Soybean Board. The idea was to see whether Ford could siphon 5 percent of petroleum content out of cushions. Now that the cushions are a reality, Ford is using 10 percent soy and thinks it easily can replace 20 percent of the petroleum content.
"We're thinking 40 percent is possible," Zaluzec said last month during a technical presentation in Nashville.
But there is a tail wind behind this movement.
When the lab began the project, petroleum was selling for $40 a barrel, and shifting to soy would have raised Ford's parts costs — the opposite of what the company's global sourcing department has been asking suppliers to do for the past decade.
"But when petroleum hit $60 a barrel, soybean gained a cost advantage," Zaluzec said. "And now we're at a $100 a barrel, so things have changed."
Zaluzec said his lab is working with key Ford component suppliers, including Lear Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., to help them convert from petroleum to soy polyol.
Additionally, Ford has begun experimenting with soy meal and soy flour to replace petroleum-based additives in its vehicles' rubber components.
Recently, Ford licensed the polyol technology to John Deere to use in tractor seats. Deere also has experimented with using soy content on body panels.
But Ford's primary motivation remains environmental, Zaluzec said. "Our mission is to reduce our carbon dioxide footprint. We want to be a greener company."
Greener environmentZaluzec estimated that in the life cycle of 1.0 kilogram of petroleum — from initial processing through finished manufacturing — 3.5 kilograms of CO2 are created.
By comparison, the life cycle of 1.0 kilogram of soybean polyol eliminated 2.0 kilograms of CO2, he estimated.
Zaluzec said putting soy-based seat cushions in all of Ford's North America-built vehicles, at just 10 percent soy content, would require 850,000 bushels of soybeans.