Ford Motor Company’s biomaterial researchers have engineered a patent-pending formula to use renewable soy oil to improve rubber car parts and make them more environmentally friendly.

By using renewable soy oil as a 25 per cent replacement for petroleum oil, Ford researchers more than doubled rubber’s stretchability and reduced its environmental impact. Soy-based rubber parts such as radiator deflector shields, air baffles, cup-holder inserts and floor mats are under consideration for future Ford vehicle programmes.

’Soy-based rubber has win-win potential as it provides superior stretchability and serves as a renewable resource that helps reduce carbon dioxide emissions from raw materials,’ said Cynthia Flanigan, Ford technical leader in elastomeric polymers. The scope of Ford’s recent rubber research, which was funded in part by grants from the US Soybean Board (USB), included the use of soy fillers (flour, meal) as well as soy oils.

Ford researchers found that soy fillers could provide an inexpensive and environmentally friendly partial replacement of carbon black, a petroleum-based material traditionally used to reinforce rubber. Used together, soy oil and soy fillers could replace up to 26 per cent of the petroleum-based content in automotive rubber applications.

While rubber’s role in automotive applications is generally not a glamorous one, it is significant. According to the International Rubber Study Group, the automotive sector accounts for more than 50 per cent of worldwide rubber consumption, which exceeded 22m tonnes in 2008. Automotive rubber usage is expected to rise more than four per cent through 2013.

Ford was the first car maker to demonstrate that soy-based foams could be formulated to pass stringent requirements for automotive applications, starting with seats for the 2008 Ford Mustang and headliners for the 2010 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner. The new 2011 Ford Explorer will become the 23rd model to feature soy foam.

The company is looking at the use of other renewable sources for foam, including grape seed and sunflower oil.

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