Ford and supplier Lear Corporation will next month claim an automotive milestone when production of soy-based foam for seats begins in the 2008 model year Mustang.

The retro-look car will use the industry’s first soy-based flexible foam in seat backs and seat cushions.

Soy bean-based products were something of an obsession for founder Henry Ford and the automaker has used them before. The Model T contained 60 pounds of soybeans in its paint and moulded plastic parts, soy-based body panel prototypes showed up in the 1940s and Ford also showcased industry-leading work on soy-foams in 2003 on the Model U concept, which featured soy-based seat cushions and resin composite tailgate.

“Our technical team had to overcome several significant hurdles to bring this environmentally responsible technology to production,” said Gerhard Schmidt, vice president of research & advanced engineering at the automaker.

Ford claimed to be the first automaker in the world to demonstrate that soy-based polyols could be used at high%age levels to make foam capable of meeting or exceeding automotive requirements and, in 2004, formed a partnership with Lear to commercialise soy-foam applications, with initial work concentrating on the moulding of headrest and armrest components.

The environmental advantages of soy-foam include: a reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions when compared to current petroleum-based material, lower energy required to produce the material, up to 24% renewable content, and a reduction of dependence on volatile energy markets.

Ford and Lear collaborated with the United Soybean Board – new uses committee (a group of 64 farmers and agriculture industry leaders), Urethane Soy Systems Company, Bayer Corporation and RENOSOL CORPORATION on soy-foam development.

Most automotive manufacturers today use 100% petroleum-based polyol foam and each vehicle produced contains an average of 30 pounds of petroleum-based foam. The total annual worldwide market for the foam is 9 billion pounds.

Ford reckons auto manufacturers’ research and development of renewable, more environmentally friendly materials to produce the foam, could have a significant environmental impact.