It has been nearly 70 years since Henry Ford took a whack at soybean-based plastics for his cars, and the company now run by his great-grandson still is looking at perfecting the concept.
Ford Motor Co., which marks its centennial this year, rolled out its Model U concept car Jan. 5 for the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. The car is filled with environmentally friendly ideas, from the hydrogen-fueled engine to a tailgate made of soy resin.
``It's a bundle of new, exciting ideas,'' said Gerhard Schmidt, vice president of research for the Dearborn, Mich.-based carmaker.
The Model U is intended to test the waters for a variety of new and potential breakthroughs in the auto industry.
Some of the products, such as a corn filler used to replace carbon black in tires, are in the initial stages of commercial development. Others are further out, but all are worth exploring, Schmidt said.
The composite soy resin already debuted on a variety of agricultural products made by John Deere, but with the Model U, the auto industry is getting its own trial.
``Ford proved that it could be done; we're proving it can be economically viable,'' said Mike Sykes, senior product manager for Ashland Specialty Chemical Co. of Dublin, Ohio, which supplies the soy composite for John Deere and worked with Ford on the Model U project.
``It's fun to bring it back to the guys who first started working with it.''
Henry Ford first explored the potential of soybeans in the mid-1930s, including at least one incident captured on film when he took a sledgehammer to the rear of one car with a soy composite.
In honor of that image, the development group decided to try out the current-generation composite, marketed by Ashland as Envirez, in the Model U's tailgate - although there were no sledgehammers in sight to provide Henry Ford's ultimate test.
``There was this motivation to have this as a heritage to Henry Ford,'' Schmidt said. ``He was really dedicated to finding solutions out of the box. He was a pioneer in bringing out these thoughts and innovations.''
A soy blend also goes into the polyurethane foam of the seating cushions.
``We can avoid the fossil fuel, which is already a significant step ahead,'' said Ravi Vijayaraghavan, technical specialist in Ford's scientific research laboratory. ``There are also solutions that come from renewable resources.''
The team used recyclable and recycled materials for the fabrics that could avoid the landfill, while also looking at new manufacturing techniques to streamline production.
Deere & Co., based in Moline, Ill., had an exclusive license for Envirez until mid-2002. Ashland executives now are introducing it to other possible users, including those in the auto industry - at Ford and at its competitors. That means not only appealing to environmentalists, but also accountants.
``It's our job to make it commercially attractive to them,'' Sykes said. ``It's got to compete in the marketplace on its own legs.''
Most of the concepts arrayed in the Model U are years from commercialization, while others may await just the right opportunity for use, Schmidt said, even if the research takes decades.
``Not all of [Henry Ford's] ideas were successful. The technology was not mature enough, but there has been a lot of progress.''