Johnson Controls has developed a new type of foam pad used in automotive seats that is comprised of 5% soy-based products and 95% polyurethane.

Soy-based seat systems from the company will be fitted on “numerous” US 2008 model year production vehicles, the supplier said.

“We are strongly committed to developing and using ‘eco-friendly’ materials that come from renewable sources,” said Charlie Baker, engineering chief of the supplier’s automotive interior business. “Using greater quantities of bio-materials, such as soy, also can help cut the industry’s reliance on petroleum-based products.”

Conventional foam pads in automotive seats are made from 100% petroleum-based polyurethane but the new type replaces 5% of the total pad weight with soy oil, a byproduct of livestock feed. The new seat foam pads were thoroughly evaluated, and their total performance – in durability, shape and comfort – is claimed to match the performance of conventional foam.

“Switching to a 5% soy composition in seat foam will be transparent to consumers in terms of product performance,” added Baker. “But when automakers and suppliers make environmental improvements in their products, those efforts can ultimately deliver strong benefits to the general public.”

“In contrast to petroleum, soy and other plant-based products are abundant, renewable, and tend to have more stable market pricing,” said Baker.

Johnson Controls currently moulds more than 100m pounds of urethane foam annually for automotive seats supplied to automakers in North America. If soy foam pads were used in all of these seats, instead of conventional urethane foam, the company would reduce its use of non-renewable, petroleum-based products by several million pounds.

It is a bigger challenge to engineer soy-based foam for seat cushions and seat backs because of higher performance requirements when compared to foam required for headrests and armrests.

Engineers targeted the use of soy foam for seat cushions and seat backs because the potential environmental benefits are more significant. Typically, a complete set of seats for a vehicle is comprised of 25 to 30 pounds of urethane material for seat cushions and seatbacks compared with two to five pounds of urethane for headrests and armrests combined. Using soy-based foam for seat cushions and seatbacks offers a larger overall opportunity for reducing the use of petroleum-based materials when compared to using a higher percentage of soy for smaller parts.

Baker said his company eventually wants to develop a viable foam product with even higher soy composition.

“We have the processes already in place to move toward this goal,” he said.