Talking Soybeans and Greener Ford Cars With Debbie Mielewski

Debbie Mielewski at Ford
Debbie Mielewski’s team has used soybeans as plastic replacements for greener Ford cars. | Source: Ford

We write a good deal on the eternal miles per gallon question and the quest for greener cars. But there’s more to making a vehicle economical than sticking a battery inside and getting electricity involved. In fact, heavy lithium-ion batteries can complicate the efficiency equation, creating a need for lighter weights in other areas.

Debbie Mielewski, senior technical leader of sustainability research at Ford Motor Company, confronts this challenge every day in a Dearborn lab. Following the announcement Ford and Jose Cuervo were trying to repurpose the remains of agave plants into car parts, Autos Cheat Sheet sat down with Mielewski in Manhattan to get a better idea of how this project and other sustainability challenges are getting tackled at Ford.

Ford F-150
You can find rice hulls, old blue jeans, and soy foam inside every F-150. | Source: Ford

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mielewski’s efforts in the field is how far back they go. While speaking about her background at Ford, which began nearly three decades ago, she described learning from two mentors on the job while getting her PhD in chemical engineering. Those senior lab technicians eventually retired, leaving Mielewski in charge of plastics. It was a role that made her “super uncomfortable” and prompted a shift in the department’s goals.

The whole idea of making plastics greener came from [this new responsibility],” Mielewski said. “When they left me in charge, I thought, ‘Umph, I hate plastics.’ I didn’t mind working on it, but as soon as I was leading it, I had to confront its effects: it ends up in landfills, no one knows what to do with it, it’s killing wildlife, it’s ruining the ocean … so the whole idea was let’s try to make the plastics better.”

Mielewski and her team at Ford have been working on it from a number of angles with hopes of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, helping farmers (like those producing agave for Jose Cuervo), and combating waste in the production of vehicles at North American plants. Yet it turns out this approach to sustainability goes way back to the start of the company. Henry Ford, a farmer, was in touch with the earth in ways the industry has not seen since.

Ford is testing the viability of agave byproduct as a replacement for plastics in Blue Oval vehicles. | Source: Ford

“Henry Ford in the ’40s was working very intensely in similar projects,” Mielewski said. “He loved the soybean; he was the first recycler extraordinaire; he had asked suppliers to ship products in a certain-size carton, which he then used them as floorboards in a vehicle. He didn’t believe in any waste and thought agriculture and the auto industry were the most natural partners — if Ford used farmers’ products, they would buy Ford trucks.”

The plan worked until after the Second World War, when oil became cheap and cars started roaring throughout a prosperous America. Soon thereafter, the Mustang revolution got underway and the conservation conversation was tabled for another day. A big moment came around the turn of the 21st century when soybean farmers in the Midwest approached Ford about using excess soy in new vehicles.

“If you bubble hot air through soy oil, you can use the foam created in different parts of a car. We used it on the Mustang first in late 2007,” Mielewski said, “and the magic was oil prices spiked right then. So everyone thought it was a great idea because it could save money. Now every North American Ford vehicle has soybeans in the seat cushions, backs, and head rests.”

Hopes to make the company’s plants in Hermosillo more sustainable led Mielewski and her team to inquire after the agave farms supplying the product for tequila giant Cuervo. The two companies agreed the massive amounts of agave byproduct would be better off living a second life in Ford cars, and engineers are hard at work trying to isolate the properties best used for the job. But getting someone to turn agave straw into bioplastic is a problem.

Mustang GT Black Package
Recycled carpeting and soybeans were used to make this car. | Source: Ford

Mielewski said the challenge in every effort to use bioplastics was finding suppliers that see an economic opportunity in producing the materials. On another note, we asked about the clamor from environmental advocates about the impact automakers have on emissions, and whether her efforts could be seen as moving the needle to the greener side. (Earlier in July, automakers were resisting the increase in fuel economy standards on the horizon.)

“I see this effort as complementary to all the fuel economy improvements we’ve made,” Mielewski said. “I don’t think other OEMs have taken these measures to heart like we have. We’ve done lifecycle analysis on all materials we’ve implemented so we have hard numbers on how much greenhouse gas reductions we’ll see using these bioplastics. Just because it’s plant-based doesn’t mean it will be good for the environment.

“You have to see how many steps you make to get there. Our numbers show these biomaterials are an improvement. The leading factor for all our natural-fiber lifecycling has been lightweighting. So as soon as you lightweight a component, you improve fuel economy and it’s on the road 100,000 miles. That’s the huge difference in how green the component is.”

Looking back at Ford’s effort to use discarded tomato skins used in Heinz ketchup, Mielewski said they are still testing and had some issues (like the smell) to overcome. As far as getting agave straw into the mix, an enthusiastic Mexican supply chain suggested positive things ahead. Mielewski spoke excitedly of incorporating algae, bamboo, and other abundant, fast-growing materials to trim the use of oil during production.

She also mentioned Henry Ford’s experiments with ethanol as a fuel. “The guy was really thinking outside the box,” she said. With her team’s sustainability efforts, Mielewski is continuing the tradition at Ford.

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