Still, the auto industry has developed breakthrough technology before. Consider a soybean-based urethane foam blend, which Ford began using last year in the Mustang and now is in six Ford vehicles, she said.
Mielewski's group is looking at a range of new materials for future use, including:
-- Shape-memory polymers that return to a preset shape at a certain temperature.
-- Composites that use natural structural materials such as kenaf, hemp and jute instead of glass.
-- Corn-based polylactic acid, or PLA, resin.
-- Greater use of Mucell technology to reduce the amount of resin needed in each part. Mucell technology uses microscopic air bubbles to improve the structural performance of a plastic, allowing companies to use less resin while getting the same performance.
The Ford team's biggest challenge is in replacing traditional plastics with PLA.
"You combine that with natural fibers, and you get a completely compostable product," Mielewski said.
PLA is a flexible resin, she said. It can be made in sheets, injection molded and blow molded. PLA has become a favored material for biodegradable cups at some coffee shops.
But automotive use of PLA faces two big hurdles:
1. PLA, as currently engineered, breaks down naturally within 120 days.
2. Molding PLA takes minutes, rather than seconds, in the press.
"We have to heat it up in the mold, but heating it up also helps it biodegrade," said Dan Herndon, director of new product strategy and innovation for Johnson Controls Inc.'s automotive group in suburban Detroit.
Mielewski's group has focused its research on improving the durability and processing time of PLA.