The future of Ford's cars: biodegradable?

The future of Ford's cars: biodegradable?
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Imagine fertilizing your garden with car parts. That's the dream of Debbie Mielewski and her team of bio-engineers at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Mich.

I was invited to check out how Mielewski's Plastics Research Group is engineering an earth-friendlier plastic, at a time when crisis-levels are choking the Pacific Ocean.

The average car has about 300 pounds of plastic in it. That plastic is petroleum based. And if you've heard of the Great Garbage Patch -- a plastic soup the size of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean -- you know that plastic is an enemy of the earth.

But it's practically everywhere and needed, for now, in the cars we drive. If we have to wean our cars off of oil, we also need to include weaning the car-parts off of it too.

"My dream is to have compostable plastics on vehicles. Instead of going to a landfill and sitting there for a thousand years," says Mielewski. "In 60-90 days in a compost pile, the plastics will nourish the soil...and it can be used to grow plants."

To achieve that dream takes years of tinkering in the lab. It took eight years to create a soy-based foam that could withstand Ford's durability tests. Early trials yielded "atrocious" crumbly results.

But now soy-based foam is on the market, including in the seat cushions and headrests of the 2010 Mustang, keeping 5 million pounds of Co2 out of the earth's atmosphere, according to Mielewski.

"It's an exciting feeling to see that what you're doing here in the lab actually does come to fruition," says Angela Harris, a Ford bio-engineer.

The Plastics Research lab is also experimenting with coconut, sugar cane, and creating beautiful seat covers made entirely of corn, which are stylish but can't pass durability testing, yet.

"It's [also] not just about creating brand new materials or new ideas, it's actually doing some recycling," says Patti Tibbenham, the engineer in charge of working with recycled materials. Those materials include rice hull and wheat straw, byproducts of harvesting that farmers throw out anyway.

Henry Ford, who enthusiastically experimented with soy-beans and hemp plastics, would be proud. Ford's CEO Alan Mulally has sent Mielewski hand-written notes of encouragement. And Ford's President of the America's, Mark Fields, told me inside of Ford's Wayne, Mich., assembly plant that, "We have a joke: you can use your car for 10 years and when you're done, eat the seats."

With fuel prices averaging around $3 per gallon, consumers demand fuel efficiency. Ford plans to have four electric cars on the market by 2012, including the Focus Electric, which will get 100 miles on a single charge, and the small Transit Connect van, providing 80 miles per charge. The Wayne plant will be getting a thousand jobs to create both the Focus hybrids and plug-ins.

At this week's North American International Auto Show (AKA the Detroit Auto Show), the Ford Fusion Hybrid midsize sedan won the North American Car of the Year -- the fourth hybrid to do so -- and the Transit Connect compact van took home the Truck of the Year. Ford seems to be raking in the good karma for not taking in the government bailout.

To see a video of Ford's soy-based foam being "cooked up" in the lab, go to

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