The Right Chemistry: A soybean car good enough to eat? Not quite

Henry Ford was infatuated with soybeans and his concept of “chemurgy,” the use of chemistry to transform crops into paint, fabric and plastic.

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I was going to tackle the timely subject of “bioplastics” derived from plant materials instead of from petroleum, but I got sidetracked by, of all people, Henry Ford.

I generally like to begin such articles with a bit of historical perspective and I knew about the famous photograph of Ford ready to strike his “soybean car” with an axe to demonstrate the indestructibility of the soybean plastic. The plastic had been developed at his Edison Institute of Technology, named after his hero, Thomas Edison, who was a frequent visitor and consultant. That figured to be an interesting launching pad for a discussion of current research into biodegradable plastics made from soybeans.

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But I got stuck in the past, with Ford’s infatuation with the bean and his concept of “chemurgy,” the use of chemistry to transform crops, particularly soybeans, into paints, fabrics, plastics and novel foods. 

In 1913, Ford revolutionized the automobile industry with the introduction of the assembly line, which made cars affordable. Farmers were ideal customers for his cars and trucks, but they often struggled financially. There would be mutual benefit, Ford thought, if his company could find a use for farmers’ products in the production of automobiles. The farmers would then earn more and buy more Ford products.

The plan picked up speed when the Great Depression hit in 1929, with a devastating impact on agricultural communities. That year, Ford launched the Edison Institute, with Edison himself signing the cornerstone as such luminaries as Marie Curie, Kodak Company founder George Eastman, John D. Rockefeller, Orville Wright and Will Rogers looked on. Twenty-one-year-old Robert Boyer, whom Ford had met years earlier and encouraged to take a technical degree in chemistry, was hired to head a lab that aimed to find practical uses for farm products. Attention quickly focused on soybeans, since they could be readily grown in America and were known to be a source of fats, proteins and fibre. 

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By 1932, Boyer built on German technology to develop a method to use naphtha, a solvent obtained from the distillation of petroleum, to extract the soybean’s fat content. Soy oil proved to be an effective carrier for pigments and became a major component of the paint used on all Ford cars.

Fats can be chemically broken down into fatty acids and glycerol. The latter turned out to be useful in the production of shock absorbers. There was then the question of what to do with the “defatted, protein-rich” residue that was left after the oil had been extracted. In 1906, Leo Baekeland had made the first synthetic plastic from phenol and formaldehyde that in all modesty he called Bakelite. This was used to make various parts, such as horn buttons, gearshift knobs and pedals on Ford cars. Boyer found that soybean meal could be mixed with Bakelite without any loss of the plastic’s properties and by 1935, about 60 pounds of soybeans were processed into the paint and moulded plastic parts in every Ford car.   

But Ford had bigger ideas. He aimed to make a car with a body derived mostly from soy. Not only would this bolster his concept of chemurgy, it would also make the car lighter and save gas. Also, as American industry was gearing up for war, steel was in short supply, making soy-based plastics an attractive option.

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In 1940, Ford garnered extensive publicity when magazines carried a photo of him raising an axe, ready to smash the rear of a car. It was his personal car, which had been fitted by Boyer with a plastic lid for the trunk, and according to the overly enthusiastic press reports, was able to withstand Ford’s blows and rebound into its original shape. A plastic trunk cover was one thing, but what about a whole car body made of soy plastic? Just a year after the famous photo, reporters were invited to a community festival in Dearborn, Mi., to unveil what would become known as the “soy car.” It was made of 14 plastic panels attached to a metal frame and weighed about 30 per cent less than a conventional Ford car. 

Understandably, the press gushed over the car “made of soybeans” and humorists found it to be an ideal target.

“If you get tired of your car, you can always eat it,” quipped one. Another wondered if Ford had thought of adding spinach to the mix to make the plastic stronger.

Just how big a role that soybeans played in the car remains a mystery. The composition of the plastic was not documented and its developer described it as “soybean fibre impregnated with phenol-formaldehyde resin.” There was soy in the car, but it was a minor component. Many press reports were accompanied by the photo of Ford wielding the axe and claimed it was being used to bludgeon the “soy car,” which was not the case. While it wasn’t really a “soy car,” the prototype can be remembered as the first car body that was made of plastic, although describing it as a bioplastic is a stretch, since it was mostly Bakelite.  

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Boyer’s research extended into producing fibres from the soy protein left over after fat extraction. He worked out chemical treatments that converted the proteins into a slurry that could be pushed through a mould with tiny holes and then solidify into fibres that were then woven into a fabric he called “soy wool.” Ford was enchanted by the soft material and was thrilled when for his 75th birthday he was gifted a tie made partially of soybean wool. Later, he had a “soybean suit” made for himself, but his proposal to make army uniforms from soy did not appeal to the military. However, soybean wool did come in handy for upholstery in Ford cars. 

There is no question that Henry Ford has received deserved accolades for founding the American automobile industry and for championing “chemurgy.” His legacy, though, is marred by his racism and antisemitism.

Perhaps it is evident how I got sidetracked from my planned discussion of bioplastics. And yes, today there are true soy-based bioplastics. No, you can’t ride around in “soy cars,” but you can eat with plastic cutlery made from soy protein and sleep on soy fibre sheets, as I do. They are conducive to pleasant dreams unless before falling asleep one comes across Ford’s vitriolic views when reading about the history of bioplastics, as I did. Then you get nightmares.

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Joe Schwarcz is director of McGill University’s Office for Science & Society (mcgill.ca/oss). He hosts The Dr. Joe Show on CJAD Radio 800 AM every Sunday from 3 to 4 p.m.

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