Beyond the Classroom: Working with Ford to Go Green


Who knew the seat cushions in your car could be made from 31,251 soybeans, or that the fibers in your steering wheel included cigarette filters or shredded dollar bills? Second year SNRE student Claire Boland knows all about these things thanks to her role as a Graduate Student Research Assistant at Ford Motor Company.

Growing up outside of Boston, Boland graduated from Northwestern University with an undergraduate degree in materials science and engineering with a focus in materials for energy applications. Prior to coming to SNRE, she worked at RR Donnelley, a global print company, analyzing their customers' supply chains for possible efficiencies. Ready for some new challenges, Boland took a leap and decided to leave her Chicago based position behind and transition into the environmental field.  She applied to SNRE's Master's Program, was accepted, and the rest is history.

“I was really missing science and doing something I believed in so when Greg Keoleian told me about a project in the pipeline with Ford that could be a great fit with my prior experience, I jumped at the opportunity,” said Boland.

The idea behind Boland's research at Ford is to quantify the impact the car manufacturer is making when replacing certain plastics components with more sustainable materials using life cycle assessment.

“We want to find out how much CO2 is being saved when bio-based materials are implemented compared to the currently used materials. We're calculating the life cycle impact of a variety of different products so we're able to understand the carbon footprint,” said Boland.

It seems as though Boland has really found her niche through this project. Greg Keoleian, SNRE Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Systems isn't surprised. He had a good feeling Claire would be a great fit for the UM Ford Alliance project.

"Claire's background in materials science and engineering combined with her current studies in Sustainable Systems made her a great candidate for this internship," said Keoleian. "She has made excellent progress developing a new tool to evaluate sustainability performance and guide material selection decisions involving biobased materials for automotive applications."

Boland's work on the UM Ford Alliance project has led her to author a paper along with some colleagues at the Center for Sustainable Systems and the Ford Research and Innovation Center that compares life cycle energy and environmental performance of using cellulose fibers as a replacement for glass fibers in composites. The paper has been accepted for publication by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and Boland will present the study at the upcoming SAE World Congress this spring.

Beyond the Classroom: Working with Ford to Go Green