Debbie Mielewski, technical leader, Ford Plastics Research
Courtesy United Soybean Board

The research-and-development process has provided Mielewski with an education on plants — and laws. The plant that hemp comes from, for example, has some strains that produce marijuana. Other strains, however, are used to make rugs, ropes, clothes and paper. The problem, Mielewski says, is that hemp cannot be grown in the U.S., “but you can grow it right across the bridge in Windsor, Canada, which is seven miles away.” In Canada, Ford is evaluating whether hemp can be used to build armrests and center consoles.

Natural fibers like hemp and wheat straw are a gold mine for reconstituting. “Wheat straw has so low of a value that, after it gets harvested, it gets burned in the field,” says Mielewski. “Farmers encouraged us to use it because that’s a revenue stream they never thought they’d have.” The crop has already been used to make air ducts and storage bins.

Ford's concept seat, called the “Enviroseat”
Courtesy Ford Motor Co.
To meet its large soybean demand — Mielewski has used a scientific formula to determine that more than 31,000 beans go into every Ford Escape — Ford suppliers acquire more than 5 million pounds of the legume every year. “Henry Ford always believed in a partnership between farmers and industry and that utilizing each other’s products would benefit both,” Mielewski says. The company’s founder is credited with creating a car made from soybean fibers in 1941. But World War II intervened, and the vehicle never made it to production. “I always say it looks like we are copying him, but we’re really not,” Mielewski says.

When she was hired at Ford Research in 1986, Mielewski was one of the first female chemical engineers employed there. “I was one of very few women,” she says. “They only had one women’s restroom in the building, and I had to take an elevator to get to it. I had to preplan my trips.”

Opportunities for women have increased at Ford, but Mielewski says her all-female team was not by design. “We have had a lot of men rotate through our group,” she says. There was a goal within the research group to recruit more females 15 years ago, but Mielewski was determined to find the best candidates regardless of gender. Her first two hires were Cynthia Flanigan and Ellen Lee, who were eminently qualified. Flanigan earned a bachelor’s degree at MIT and a Ph.D. at Northwestern University. Lee earned her bachelor’s from Northwestern and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

During the lab tour, Lee, the group’s technical expert, picks up a handful of the shredded currency and explains its use. “The Federal Reserve banks retire millions of pounds in currency every year, and the majority of it goes into landfills,” she says. “One of the companies we work with brought the idea to us, and it is now being tested as a coin tray.” The speckled green tray feels hard, like plastic, rather than soft like paper money — a result, Lee says, of adding materials like fiberglass and talc as reinforcement.