Many college students spend their summers working at restaurants, lifeguarding or babysitting to make a little extra money before heading back to school. For two members of the Collegiate Biobased Network who were interns at Ford Motor Company, their summer jobs helped drive sustainable automobiles to the next level.
Peter Rohweder, a sophomore at the College of Wooster in Ohio and Alper Kiziltas, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maine, spent 2013 focusing on how to expand the use of soy in Ford vehicles.
Rohweder spent the summer of 2013 working as an intern in the Elastomers Group at Ford. His research focused on using soy oil as a replacement for petroleum oil in stock rubber, typically used for applications such as windshield wipers, weather stripping, hosing and other automotive seals.
The chemistry major sees a natural connection between Ford Motor Company and soy.
“It’s part of who they are as a company, dating back to Henry Ford’s vision of using soy in cars,” Rohweder said. “Ford Motor Company has been extremely innovative in looking for new ways to use renewable materials like soy in its vehicles.”
With support from the United Soybean Board (USB), Rohweder evaluated several soy oil alternatives in the rubber formulations, including degummed soy oil, epoxidized soy oil, and hydrogenated soy flake. He also compared mechanical and thermal properties to identify appropriate levels of soy in the formulation, among other research projects.
“I found this research extremely promising, with soy being a very viable alternative for use in rubber formulations,” Rohweder said.
Kiziltas completed his soy research as a Ph.D. student under the supervision of Ford’s Dr. Ellen Lee, Team Leader of Plastics Research. While there, he looked at ways to extend the use of soy in polyurethane flexible foams.
Ford currently uses soy-based polyurethane foams in seat cushions and seat backs in all vehicles produced in North America. USB funding supported joint research with Ford that led to commercialization of the foam. The technology has successfully migrated to other automotive applications, and now efforts are underway to increase the content of soy-based polyol in the foam formulations.
One such method of doing so involves reinforcing the foam with nano materials. Not only can improvements in mechanical properties be achieved, but also thermal properties and renewable content are strengthen and increased.
“By using soy-based materials, Ford is able to lessen its environmental impact, reduce dependence of fossil fuels, and cut CO2 emissions,” Kiziltas said.
Kiziltas’s research at Ford focused on improving the mechanical, thermal, and microstructural properties of soy-based polyurethane flexible foam by incorporating various types of nanofillers into the formulation. Initial studies showed that nanofiller loadings as low as a fraction of a percent were able to deliver significant improvements in properties.
Perhaps more importantly, the addition of nanofillers could potentially enable the increased use of renewable content in the formulations. The developed foams could be targeted for thermal and sound absorbing insulators. Kiziltas adds that further research is required in order to optimize the new technologies at scale.
For the full-time scientists in the lab, the summer interns are a welcome addition.
“The college students really bring a fresh perspective and creative ideas to the research program,” said Dr. Cynthia Flanigan, Technical Leader for Ford’s Elastomers Research. “This is a great opportunity to expand our portfolio of sustainable materials and to investigate different types of soy-based materials for automotive rubber compounds.”
From seat cushions to gaskets to headrests, soy is used today in every vehicle Ford produces in North America. Ford has used over 100 billion soybeans, reduced petroleum oil usage by more than 5 million pounds annually and carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 million pounds. The company continues to look for additional ways to incorporate the use of soy and other renewable materials in its vehicles and one day hopes to completely eliminate the use of petroleum-based parts.
Who knows, the next great breakthrough may be just a summer internship away.