Ellen Lee, technical expert, Ford Plastics Research
Sam Varnhagen/Ford Motor Co.

The novelty of plant-based parts is intriguing and admirable, but will consumers ultimately invest in vehicles simply because they are better for Mother Nature? Or will there have to be some kind of corresponding drop in price? “I’ll make it real simple,” says Theodore. “If you make it easy for consumers to be environmentally good, they will do it. If you ask them to pay more for something that is environmentally friendly, some will say yes and a much smaller portion will actually put their money where their mouth is and actually do it.”

Ford is clearly headed toward greater use of soy-based products. “Right now, Ford’s policy states that engineers must choose a sustainable material if it meets all performance and durability requirements at an equivalent cost,” Mielewski says. When she launched soy-based foam in the Mustang in 2007, the costs between petroleum and soy-based material were similar. As petroleum prices continue to rise, however, Mielewski expects a cost savings using soy. “The lightweight aspect of these materials is a very attractive part of the equation,” she says.

As the market determines the viability of green auto parts, Theodore sees no immediate financial benefits for Ford. He uses coconut shells to illustrate a point. First, Ford needs to invest the time and money into researching and creating a product that works — that usually takes three to five years — and then the company must determine if it can turn a profit. “The answer, in the short term, is no,” Theodore says, “because there is no infrastructure set up to collect coconut shells, process them into a useful material and ship that material in quantities that have any economies of scale.” Still, by taking the first step, Ford has demonstrated that it will be aggressive in seeking a better way to build cars. “Ford is pushing the rest of the industry forward, not only here in America but also in Europe,” Theodore says.

For more on the history of the Ford Motor Co., click here.

No one is more enthusiastic than Mielewski to see where this new wave of innovation can go. “I am not a botanist by any means, but I am a superduper reuser,” she says. “My dad was a World War II veteran and lived through the Depression. Our family constantly picked up junk and reused it. I can’t help it.”

Mielewski was born and raised in Detroit, where many of her relatives live and also have a connection to an auto plant. Her father worked as an assembly-line welder for Chrysler for 40 years. “My parents, being lower middle class, saved every dime to put us through college at the University of Michigan,” she says. She earned an undergraduate degree, master’s degree and a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the school. “When I was looking for a job, the chemical engineering industry was terrible,” she says. “I thought I was going to have to move out of state and, coming from my family, that was unheard of.”

For women considering the field today, she says opportunities are available despite a recent U.S. Department of Commerce study that found only one in four science, technology, engineering and math jobs are filled by women. “One of the most critical [steps] is to look for mentors,” Mielewski says. “I had two male bosses who pushed me to be better at my job, taught me about creativity and ultimately encouraged me to go back to school and earn my Ph.D.”