Automobiles are a major source of pollution in the United States, and in addition to making vehicles more fuel efficient, some car companies are looking for new ways to make individual car parts more environmentally-friendly.
Funded in part by grants from the United Soybean Board (USB), Ford researchers have found that by using renewable soy oil as a 25 percent replacement for petroleum oil, they can more than double rubber's stretchability and reduce its environmental impact.
Ford has is seeking a patent for its discovery, and soy-based rubber is already being considered for radiator deflector shields, air baffles, cupholder inserts and floor mats in future Ford vehicle programs.
Haste, Not Waste
According to the International Rubber Study Group, the automotive sector accounts for more than 50 percent of worldwide rubber consumption, which exceeded 22 million metric tons in 2008. Automotive rubber usage is expected to rise more than 4 percent through 2013. Using oil and other soy fillers, Ford hopes to replace carbon black, a petroleum-based material traditionally used to reinforce rubber.
In 2008, Ford was the first automaker to demonstrate that soy-based foams could be formulated to pass stringent requirements for automotive applications, starting with seat foam in that year's Ford Mustang and headliners for the 2010 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner. The new 2011 Ford Explorer will become the 23rd model to feature soy foam.
The USB promotes this research under the assumption that increased demand for soy-based products supports American farmers, but there are questions about whether or not this is a responsible use of a food crop. Additionally, there are concerns about the way soy is being cultivated by the agricultural industry.
Since its introduction in 1992, 90 percent of U.S. soy farmers have switched to genetically engineered seeds marketed by biotech giant Monsanto. Although less toxic than the dreaded atrazine, glyphosate (Roundup Ready soy's active ingredient) is highly toxic to plants and fish. The idea of dousing 12 million acres of American farmland with such a chemical every year is frightening for anyone dependent on municipal water.
Although they aren't as well-funded, Ford is exploring the use of other renewable sources for foam, like grape seed and sunflower oil. Ford is also considering the viability of post-consumer recycled resins to make underbody systems, post-industrial recycled yarns for seat fabrics, cylinder head covers made from re-purposed nylon carpeting and molded into, and wheat straw-reinforced plastic parts.