Debbie Mielewski, Ford research scientist

Someone else’s trash is Debbie Mielewski’s treasure. It’s a viewpoint the Ford research scientist has built a career on, helping to meet the company’s aggressive sustainability research goals.

Imagine it’s the future and you’re driving down the farm lane in your truck. Take a look at the cabin around you. The dash, the steering wheel, the seats, the console — everything you see is made of materials grown on your farm or your neighbor’s farm. Everything plastic is made from commodity crops.

That future is already partly a reality in the Midwest.

Ford Motor Co. uses Corn Belt-grown soy-based bioplastics in the seat backs and cushions of its trucks.

That is thanks in part to Debbie Mielewski, the senior technical leader of sustainable and emerging materials at Ford Motor Co. Research in Dearborn, Michigan.

Mielewski has spent the past 20 years developing what she calls “greener, better-for-the-planet materials.”

She has discovered that the plastics traditionally made from petroleum aren’t all that special and can be made from plant-based oils instead.

“We can meet or exceed the properties of those materials with greener substitutes and put them in production vehicles, and the customer will be pleasantly surprised,” she said.

“My particular interest has been in what the customer sees, touches in their vehicle every day, and I think there’s a real appreciation for the whole idea of making the materials more natural, probably healthier for people, and more sustainable for the long run.”

But her research is not limited to soy-based plastics. Her lab is currently looking at over 20 different fibers.

One of those fibers is industrial hemp. It’s been illegal to grow in the United States for 80 years because it’s the same species as marijuana, so the hemp Ford uses in research has to be imported.

But the 2014 Farm Bill allowed hemp growing for research purposes, and Mielewski and her team of researchers now have greater access to the crop.

Hemp holds a lot of promise as a material for the auto industry. It’s very strong, Mielewski said, and has a high tensile modulus, which is the ratio of stress to elastic strain in a material.

But because of the prohibition-induced scarcity of hemp, the Ford scientists always had “very slim pickings as far as where we could acquire hemp affordably. And so we were pretty excited when the Farm Bill said that hemp could be grown in the U.S. for research purposes,” Mielewski said.

“It’s one of the fibers that we consider has the most promise for ease of processing, high temperature stability, low odor material when you’re doing these high heat processes and long-term durability. So it is one of our favorites,” she said.

You might think that the hard part is figuring out how to make materials out of hemp, but Mielewski says otherwise.

“We’re getting pretty good with this 20-year stretch of designing materials in the lab and making them work for automotive purposes. But the hard part is the supply chain — the incentive to move to greener materials.”

The supply chain for hemp would probably follow the model already in place in the auto industry, a tiered system of smaller parts companies that supply the automakers.

Farmers would ship their crop to a processor for chopping. To be used in injection molding — used for most of Ford’s plastic parts — the fiber has to be 3 mm or shorter.

Mielewski believes that farmers play an important role in this whole process. They’re the ones who will create the lean and efficient supply chain. They’re the ones who will figure out the best varieties to grow.

“What I’ve found working with farmers over the years is they know more about the types of material that are available and their advantages and disadvantages than we could ever. It would take us years in the lab to do that,” she said.

How long until Ford is utilizing a large hemp crop? Mielewski is cautious about making predictions.

“It sometimes takes us years to get a fiber from conception into a particular application in a vehicle. Then it’ll take us another year or so to migrate it to other vehicles,” she said.

Mielewski is following in the footsteps of another creative visionary at the company: Henry Ford himself.

“Henry Ford had a deep fascination with using agricultural products in vehicles.” she said. “He looked at soy. He brought the soybean to the Midwest. He was really looking at the future with agriculture and industry partnering together, using each other’s waste material and buying each other’s products.”

Henry Ford also famously built a car with body panels made of hemp and also had several vehicles that ran on a biofuel made from hemp.

Hemp still carries a stigma among some people because of its association with marijuana, even though industrial hemp is mandated by law to have 0.3 percent — a negligible amount — of THC, the chemical that gives marijuana its mind-altering affect.

Mielewski doesn’t think that stigma even matters anymore.

“Medical marijuana has been found to do wonders for people medicinally. And so I think the stigma has to dwindle and has to go away, and it should be irrelevant,” she said.

Mielewski is proud to work for Ford, where the company’s legacy is in line with her own vision for the future.

“I guess my vision is a big one, and that’s that the materials in our vehicles should have zero impact on the planet. So we’ve been working on this for 20 years, and it drives me crazy that all of the plastic that is used in vehicles ends up in a landfill.”

Industrial hemp no doubt will play a part in her vision. And if the 2018 Farm Bill ever gets passed, hemp’s role will develop that much sooner.

The bill is expected to legalize hemp production for commercial purposes.

“I hope that we’re able to source hemp quickly and that we can get some applications in our cars,” Mielewski said. “I see it as doing some of the higher-end composite replacement for vehicles, and we’ve frankly been waiting a long time to have access to hemp in this country.”

More to the Story

Hear the full interview with Ford scientist Debbie Mielewski on episode 10 of Lancaster Farming’s industrial hemp podcast: