Ford developing car parts from crops, crop residues

Back in my youth I lusted after the new Ford Mustang. The Pony frenzy paralleled my driving career and every teenage boy could see himself cruising around in a Mustang convertible.

One of my buddies had one, and it was the ultimate in cool. Perhaps as part of my mid-life crisis, I now drive a 2008 replica model of the 1966 Mustang. It’s not quite the same, but with the top down and the stereo cranked up loud to oldies tunes, it’s still pretty cool.

At this year's meeting of the Virginia Grain Growers Association, a lunchtime speaker drew my special attention.

Angela Harris is a biomaterials research engineer with Ford Motor Company. I’m sure she has more responsibilities, but one of them is working with farm groups and Ford engineers to develop car parts from crops and crop residue.

“Anytime we can use naturally grown products that perform as well and cost no more than products made from fossil fuel, we’re going to do that,” she says.

In fact, more than 3 million Fords have soy foam seats and 75 percent of the Fords produced in the U.S. have head rests made from soy foam. Compressed corn and wheat residues are also used extensively in Ford vehicles.

She says using farm grown alternatives in car manufacturing has reduced petroleum product usage by three million pounds annually. Fossil fuel generated CO2 use was further cut 15 million pounds. As the percentage of naturally grown products used in automobiles increases, those numbers are likely to go up dramatically.

And those trucks that the advertisements say are “made Ford tough.” Well, there’s a good chance the box liners and fenders are made from a blend of compressed wheat and plastic. Ford trucks are a little tougher because of the addition of the wheat, Harris says.

“Our research is based on determining whether these naturally grown materials are durable enough and comfortable enough to use in our vehicles. A big part of my job is taking these materials, finding the right spots for them, and making them work in our vehicles,” she explains.

She says Ford is currently looking at a number of products made 100 percent from corn. They are also looking at the feasibility of growing rubber-containing plants in the U.S. and using these products as substitutes for petroleum-based products.

On behalf of all the grain farmers out there, kudos to Ford! Thanks for using farm grown products and thanks for making the grain business a little more profitable and a lot more sustainable.

And, thanks for striking a blow against all those folks who hoard the world’s oil supply and don’t like the U.S. too much for our role in trying to keep the supply of black gold a little more stable and affordable.

Using farm-grown products in Fords is not new. Henry Ford, for whom the popular brand is named, experimented with domestically grown dandelions and other plants that produced latex to be used in tires for Ford cars as back as the 1930s. Modern day bioengineers are continuing to look at Russian dandelion that can be grown in the U.S. as a source of synthetic rubber.

Ford was deeply interested in finding ways of relating new technology to agriculture as part of his lifelong efforts to improve the lot of farmers, who were among his best customers for both Ford cars and Fordson tractors.

In 1928 Ford became interested in a new agricultural concept, farm chemurgy, which applies chemistry and allied sciences to transform farm crops into new industrial products.

Ford believed that industry and agriculture are natural partners, that industry would increasingly turn to the soil for many of its raw materials, and that eventually many components of finished cars and tractors could come from farms.

In addition to soybeans, there might also be money in my Ford. The company is studying ways to use shredded U.S. currency. The tensile strength of the paper used for our money is particularly attractive to Ford. Used money has no value, but it does need a place, usually a landfill, where shredded, discarded money can be dumped. By using these used up dollars, Ford will be making a contribution to the environment and the economy.

Ford’s work with soybeans goes way back, before the ‘super bean’ came, went and made a triumphant return to the agriculture spotlight in the U.S.

Now, soybeans are a major crop once more in the U.S. and with May, 2012 prices in the $15 a bushel range, it’s likely there will be plenty of soybeans planted this year.

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.

The main focus of critics of using agricultural products for industries other than food production has been the use of corn for ethanol. The use of soybeans in a variety of products, including Ford vehicles, has generally flown under the radar of the food for fuel critics.

I don’t want to enter into that fray just yet. I want to enjoy driving around in my Ford Mustang, and I’m proud to say there may be beans in my Ford.

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