Soy: Everything old is new again

16 Sep 2010

Soybean car from the collection of The Henry Ford

Soy instead of petroleum?  Those of us who grew up around here and were paying attention during our school field trips recall that Henry Ford experimented with incorporating agricultural materials in the manufacture of automobiles.  Ford said that he wanted to find nonfood applications for agricultural surpluses as well as encouraging farmers to be his customers by being theirs.  Eventually, he focused on soybeans, and in the 1920s began promoting soybean products. He found uses for soy oil in automobile paints and enamels, in rubber substitutes, and in the production of glycerol for shock absorbers.  Soy protein was treated to form upholstery cloth. Eventually the proteins in soy meal were used to make plastics for parts like glove-box doors, gear-shift knobs, horn buttons, accelerator pedals, distributor heads, interior trim, and steering wheels.

In 1941, Ford actually showed a car with plastic panels all made of soy plastics.  The introduction of what we think of as traditional plastics with Nylon at the 1939 World’s Fair sent plastics in a different direction.

Ford now reports that it is seeking patents for a formula to use soy to replace 25% of the petroleum in rubber car parts. Given that the automotive industry accounts for over half of the worldwide consumption of rubber, this is a significant step toward sustainability and reduction on foreign oil reliance.  I suspect Henry Ford is saying “I told you so” right now.

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