DETROIT – Spurred in part by Hollywood, auto makers and suppliers are beginning to see increased interest in environmentally friendly interior materials.

“We had a resistance from our clients to go green, or there was a lack of awareness” of environmentally friendly interior materials, Carol Kordich, lead designer for Ford Motor Co.’s sustainable materials development, says of the prevailing attitude during her career as an interior designer in the late 1980s.

But now, with movies such as Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and the growth of the organic food industry, as well as increased use of natural or recycled fibers in clothing, all things green are in vogue, Kordich says here at the 2007 Ward’s Auto Interiors Show.

One of the hottest eco-friendly interior materials is soybeans, which in the form of soybean oil can be used in place of petroleum polyols to create foam for headrests, armrests and seat cushions.

On average, 30-40 lbs. (14-18 kg) of petroleum-based foam is used in every vehicle interior, says Ash Galbreath, director-foam and comfort engineering for Lear Corp.

Using soybean-derived materials in automotive applications is not new, Kordich and Galbreath remind attendees here. Henry Ford experimented with plastics and textiles made from soybean oil in the 1920s and 1930s.

Interior supplier Lear has created what it has dubbed “SoyFoam,” expected to be used in an ’08 production model.

Galbreath says using soybean oil in place of petroleum is advantageous because soybeans are 100% renewable and can be grown on a local and global level, plus 0.07 oz. (2 g) of carbon dioxide are removed from the atmosphere per 0.04 oz. (1 kg) of soy polyol vs. the 7.7 lbs. (3.5 kg) of CO2 that are added with the same amount of petroleum polyol.

Another advantage is the relatively stable cost of soybeans vs. petroleum.

Galbreath says Lear was granted “material readiness approval” by Ford earlier this year for SoyFoam. Ford, along with Renosol Corp., Bayer Corp., Dow Chemical Co., Urethane Soy Systems Co. and the United Soybean Board-New Uses Committee, was involved with the development of SoyFoam, he says.

Basalt, essentially volcanic rock, is another green material gaining stream.

Azdel Inc., a joint venture of GE Plastics and PPG, makes a product it calls VolcaLite, which is used in the headliner of the current-generation Acura MDX cross/utility vehicle.

Basalt mineral fibers are combined with polypropylene resins to create this substrate, which Frederick S. Deans, market leader for Azdel’s glass mat thermoplastics business says is attractive to Japanese OEMs because of end-of-life regulations in Japan, which require vehicles to be recycled.

Because 70% of all the fiberglass in a vehicle is typically in the headliner and fiberglass melts when incinerated, clogging the furnace and leading to fines, it makes sense for Acura-maker Honda Motor Co. Ltd. to be interested in alternative materials, such as basalt, Deans says.

“Right now, it’s all Eastern European-supplied,” Deans says, estimating that currently there are just 5,500 tons (5,000 t) of total volcanic material available globally.

Basalt is everywhere, but new supply sources must be developed to meet the coming demand for the material, he says.

“It has such wonderful properties that the more interest we get in the marketplace the more the business is going to grow,” Deans says, adding Honda will be using VolcaLite in some coming models.

Green materials aren’t necessarily invisible to consumers. Kordich says Ford’s ’08 Escape Hybrid is the first U.S. production vehicle to have 100% post-industrial yarn in its seat fabric, which is estimated to conserve 600,000 gallons (2.3 million L) of water annually, as well as 1.8 million lbs. (816,000 kg) of CO2.

“This is our first baby step,” she says of the Escape application of the recycled fibers.

Old-fashioned materials such as animal wool and hair also are possibilities for today’s green interiors. Mercedes-Benz taxis in Europe have used hair as a sound-absorbing material for years.

For all their attributes, barriers do remain in relation to green materials, such as how well they hold up in extreme temperatures and environmental conditions, their ultraviolet stability, durability and, probably most important to OEMs, cost.

Deans admits the cost of VolcaLite is higher than traditional glass-fiber headliner substrates but says, “You use less of it. So it kind of balances itself out.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com