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Field to Foam

As auto makers pursue alternative fuels from renewable resources, so too are suppliers contemplating clever ways to produce auto parts from ecologically friendly materials.

As auto makers pursue alternative fuels from renewable resources, so too are suppliers contemplating clever ways to produce auto parts from ecologically friendly materials.

In a vehicle's interior, up to 40 lbs. (18 kg) of petroleum-based polyurethane foam is used to produce head restraints, armrests and seat cushions, and precious little of it is recycled for the production of new vehicles.

The top two seat producers, Lear Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., have developed foam that can be manufactured from the oil of soybeans, a plentiful crop grown globally.

Lear calls its product SoyFoam. Converting soybean oil to polyol for use as polyurethane foam produces no carbon dioxide, requires 60% less conversion energy and reduces emissions of volatile organic compounds by two-thirds vs. petroleum, says Ash Galbreath, director-Environmental Comfort Engineering at Lear.

Lear has several development partners for SoyFoam, including Ford Motor Co. and the United Soybean Board (consisting of 64 soybean farmers).

Ford's “Piquette Project” research initiative is aimed at producing recyclable, eco-smart vehicles from sustainable materials, such as soybean oil.

Galbreath says Ford has been an eager partner in the SoyFoam development project, and that the auto maker wants to convert its foam to high levels of soy content as quickly as possible.

As with other new technologies, production of SoyFoam needs to reach high volumes before it becomes price-competitive. Lear's relationship with Ford is not exclusive, so the supplier is shopping the technology to other auto makers, which should help the volume rampup, Galbreath says.

Lear manufactures its own polyurethane foam at a plant in Hermosillo, Mexico.

Auto makers have numerous options if they are interested in using SoyFoam. A seat cushion, for instance, could be manufactured from 100% SoyFoam, or it can be blended with conventional polyurethane. The blended approach improves durability, Galbreath says.

Lear says it has completed successful plant trials by using up to 50% soy to produce foam that meets customer requirements.

For now, Ford has approved SoyFoam to be used for 5% of total weight for lower-density foam components. Ford also is in the final stages of approving SoyFoam for 16% of total weight for higher-density foam, Galbreath says.

After its useful life, SoyFoam can be shredded and rebonded the same way foam is recycled today into products such as carpet padding, Galbreath says. Because of its organic makeup, Galbreath says SoyFoam can be added to landfills without any negative environmental impacts.

Johnson Controls also is developing soy-based foam for automotive seats and showcased the product at its pavilion during the recent North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

JCI says seats in several '08 vehicles will contain its soy-based foam, consisting of 5% soybean oil and 95% polyurethane.

JCI says the new seat foam pads were thoroughly evaluated, and that durability, shape and comfort match that of conventional foam.

Currently, JCI says it molds more than 100 million lbs. (45 million kg) of urethane foam annually for automotive seats supplied to North American auto makers.

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