Interview: Debbie Mielewski, Senior Technical Leader of Ford’s Materials Sustainability Lab

Recycled money, agave, and ketchup are turned into car parts for the future

When walking through Ford Motor Company‘s Materials Sustainability Lab in Dearborn, Michigan, one can’t help but feel like they’re in a fictional laboratory from a Roald Dahl book. Here, however, the innovation is real and the impact is tangible. Led by Senior Technical Leader Debbie Mielewski, this facility aims to produce car parts from the unimaginable. It’s more than a demonstration of Ford’s commitment to sustainable materials; there’s an element of wonder. In light of the auto brand’s partnership with Jose Cuervo to develop bioplastics from agave plant bi-product, we visited Mielewski at the Ford Research and Innovation Center in the Biomaterials Research Lab to learn more about capabilities, limits and the future of safe, environmentally-friendly auto parts.

Let’s start at the beginning. What are the origins of this facility?

Our initial thought, back in 2000, was to put soybean oil instead of petroleum oil into polyurethane pumps. We have 30 pounds of foam on a typical vehicle and 300 pounds of plastic. It’s 10%. We thought we could make a big impact if we could take vegetable oil and substitute it in. The reason we chose soybean oil: in the midwest, we are floating in it. We export over 80% of that material. Sometimes farmers just plow it under. It seems like an easy idea. We hydroxylated it, which means attaching OH groups to it. No more than putting hot air through. We put it in a typical automotive foam formulation… and made some really bad foams. I mean, really bad, stinky things you would not want to sit on.

The dumbest idea became the most genius

Thankfully a woman who was working for me had previous experience and said, “I think I can work on this.” She went back into the lab and made hundreds and hundreds of foams, trying to optimize the soybeans. We were virtually ignored; we were thrown out of every conference room. At the time oil was $40 a barrel. We were asked, “Why are you thinking about this?” Oil was prevalent and cheap. We had the future-oriented thought that we needed alternatives to limited materials in the vehicle. When she finally made foams that met every specification for automotive, with the inclusion of soy instead of petroleum, oil skyrocketed at $160 a barrel. The dumbest idea became the most genius. We were ready. That was 2007, it went into the 2008 Mustang.

How was it all received?

We put it out there to the media. Thank goodness they loved it. Customers loved the idea. Of course, they were standing in line waiting for gasoline, but this spurred us on to look for other innovations. In six months we got it into six more programs at Ford. Now, every single North American vehicle built here has cushions, seat backs and headrests using soy. We are using about five million pounds of soybean oil instead of petroleum oil.

Are you coming from a place of “this would be interesting” or a brief from a department?

We have the freedom in this research facility to think about what’s going to happen in the future and develop the things we think we might need. For me, it stems from the personal thought that oil is not sustainable. I could make a contribution that’s not only an advancement in automotive, but for any plastic material in any industry. A very small contribution at Ford could be used anywhere. That’s what really started the whole thing. I inherited the plastics research group from two mentors. When I became the lead for it I honestly panicked because I was an environmentalist myself and it’s funny you work in the group and its fine but when you are leading plastics research it becomes more. It means more. I thought, “Oh my God, I hate plastics.” I spend so much time trying to figure out what to do with that plastic bag from the grocery store. It became obvious that I needed to work in that division for its betterment.

I could make a contribution that’s not only an advancement in automotive, but for any plastic material in any industry

So then we said, “OK, there are lots of different natural fibrous materials.” Our plastics are reinforced with either glass or talc. Glass fiber production is energy intensive. It’s not great for people who have to handle it. Talc is mined from the earth. Mining facilities are not great and leave the land in shambles. Both are dense. If we could substitute those fibers with a natural material that is left over from the food industry, we would be supporting the earth and the farming community. Those producing soy really appreciated the support.

And then you began working with wheat?

We took wheat straw from eight or nine Ontario farms. It’s collected and ground to particles the size that’s right for injection molding. We compound it and it ends up being plastic pellets. Now, the Ford Flex has 20% wheat straw reinforced plastic in the bins. You can’t even see it, which was a design decision. At the time, the designers were worried customers wouldn’t want to see it and that it looks like dust. In the future, I think we will be able to expose it and appreciate that everything is different.

Then we began working with pulp. We partnered with Weyerhaeuser to take the product of the lumber industry—that’s the pulp from cellulose. As we become more paperless, this pulp becomes more of a leftover. They were looking for high-value composite material, so we worked with them to disperse the cellulose in plastic. We worked and worked and worked. Eventually we were able to disperse it enough that it can be used to substitute 20% of glass reinforcement.

Where do you go from there?

Now we are looking at bamboo, which is an incredibly strong fiber, for Asia. We are assembling cars in Asia now. Rice hulls were another idea. Nobody knew what to do with the hulls after they harvested the food. These actually appeared, not this component we have here but another, at 20% in the new F150 for electrical brackets under the hood. We look at many, many things that get thrown away or burned. We use money that comes out of circulation: millions of pounds a week. We normally burn it. So if we can make high-value composites, we could then make the coin trays out of money. Right now the Federal Reserve sends us shredded money. We compound it with plastic. It’s not in production but we are actively pursuing it.

More recently you saw a couple of announcements by Ford. Hemp is coming back—we looked at hemp in the hold days. It’s a great fiber but we weren’t allowed to grow it in the States. Now, we will have a huge amount of this plant fiber. Then, partnerships with other companies have been another learning experience. We go out and talk about what we are doing at Ford and share ideas. Nike is very interested. Heinz is, as well.

Tomatoes are fibrous.

The fiber, seeds and stems comes out as a sloppy mess. We learned how to dry it and compound it with plastic and mold parts with it. One of our struggles was we had to develop the supply chain. We don’t make the plastics and we don’t mold the parts. Beyond tomatoes, there’s one more material that I’m super excited about. It’s not just using soy, but using CO2 as the feedstock. That’s the ultimate, “We really can solve our own problems.” If it’s about to be released in the atmosphere a company has learned how to pulverize it into a plastic material. We are trying to make sure it is soluble, but we can make really nice foams containing CO2. It’s really exciting. You never believe when people say you can’t. There is a way if you work hard.

You never believe when people say you can’t. There is a way if you work hard.

Tell me about agave.

We have been working with Jose Cuervo. This came from the wheat straw project. We have assembly plants in Mexico, so we asked ourselves, “What sort of materials are prevalent in this area?” They were thrilled with the possibility that there could be another revenue stream for their farmers. They asked, “Can we find interested parties that would take it, dry it, chop it compound it?” As far as our small-scale testing here at the table, it’s showing a lot of promise. It’s very exciting to work with other industries and try to be more efficient in the world. If we can all button down a little and look for side streams, we can together better everyone’s industry and the world.

Anything you’re frustrated with?

I guess the one thing that drives me crazy, and I’ve been doing this for a while, is that if gas prices are low, people forget. They start going back to, “It’s going to be free, available and flowing forever.” We need to develop the materials now and get used to using them. We can lower CO2 emissions just by using these from now on. Why are we not getting this message from the very top, cascading it down as a responsible thing to do? There’s a whole bunch of stuff that doesn’t take very much effort. People are afraid of being first and doing something different. We really can replace glass fiber. Why aren’t we mandating it? We do want to be first. We are putting in the effort, but we want to share it. Everybody is a citizen of the planet.

Images by Evan Orensten