Grown to drive

Jan 6, 1999 at 12:00 am

What some might call the car of the future has already made its big debut. The unveiling came in Dearborn — more than 50 years ago. David Morris, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, described the event in a recent issue of his organization’s newsletter:

"On August 14, 1941, at the 15th Annual Dearborn Michigan Homecoming Day celebration, Henry Ford unveiled his biological car. Seventy percent of the body of the cream-colored automobile consisted of a mat of long and short fibers from field straw, cotton linters, hemp, flax, ramie and slash pine. The other 30 percent consisted of a filler of soymeal and a liquid bioresin.

"The timing gears, horn buttons, gearshift knobs, door handles and accelerator pedals were derived from soybeans. The tires were made from goldenrods bred by Ford’s close friend Thomas Edison. The gas tank contained a blend: about 85 percent gasoline and about 15 percent corn-derived ethanol."

To prove the vehicle’s superiority, Ford demonstrated the strength of the car body by smashing an ax against the trunk, only to have it bounce off. For some it remains a landmark event.

"That’s one of my favorite pictures," says Richard Wool, who is at the vanguard of an emerging industry that’s rediscovering what Ford thought to be a better way of making cars. Following in Ford’s track, Wool is developing adhesive bioresins from soy oil at the University of Delaware.

"To Henry Ford," wrote Morris, "the vegetable car was the perfect vehicle for driving the American farmer out of a 20-year economic depression. But after World War II, the maturation of the petrochemical industry and the export-driven revival of American agriculture seemed to relegate the idea of a biological car to the dustbins of history. Fifty years later, at the twilight of the 20th century, Ford’s dreams are again attracting attention. Working independently, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs are finding more and more ways to incorporate vegetable-derived products into your standard car."

It is already happening.

Floor panels in the Mercedes G-class cars have been made from plastics reinforced with flax fibers since 1995. BMWs and Opels feature consoles and back seats made from flax fiber, and the newest Volkswagen Passat Variant station wagon comes with several panels of polypropylene reinforced with 50 percent flax.

"Much of the push for biobased parts is a result of environmental regulations in Europe where strict environmental laws are requiring automakers to use more recyclable products," explains Morris.

Along with being recyclable and biodegradable, another advantage of biocomposites is that they are free of the health threats Fiberglas poses to automobile plant workers.

Detroit’s Big Three are being less aggressive, but are studying the technology. Old Henry would be pleased to know that Ford’s England division is studying the possibility of using a hemp fiber composite.

"We are excited about the cost and weight advantages of using natural plant fibres," Ford materials engineer Monika Sauerbier told the Daily Telegraph of London. "One of the projects we are working on is an underbody shield for the Mondeo."

Hemp is considered by many experts to be among the best plant fibers because of its strength. But because it is the low-octane brother of marijuana, the crop can’t be legally grown in the United States. Twenty-nine other countries — including Canada — are more progressive.

One product that is gaining momentum in America is kenaf, a relative of the cotton plant. Kafus Environmental Industries, a British Columbia-based multinational, is making a major investment in the plant, which thrives in warm, southern climates.

"Volvo and Ford Europe buy the Kenaf Industries product in Europe, and in the U.S. Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and their Tier 1 suppliers are evaluating it," announces the company in its publicity material.

Part of the allure of biocomposites is that they can be both stronger and lighter than the materials they can replace, making cars more fuel efficient.

And in addition to being recyclable, domestically grown plant materials can reduce reliance on foreign oil, which must be refined at high-polluting facilities. Overall, the prospect is very eco-friendly.

Factor in advances in genetic engineering that improve the quality of fiber-producing plants in the field, and you have a stage that’s set for growth.

"Looking back at what Ford did, we’re now 50 years wiser in terms of both genetic engineering and polymer technologies," says Wool.

"It’s something that makes sense," says Tom Leffler of Findlay Industries, a Madison Heights parts manufacturer. "Testing shows materials made from natural fibers can be as durable, strong and resilient as injected-molded plastics. It also makes sense from a marketing perspective, because these are green-friendly materials, and people want to do the right thing."

Despite these advantages, though, the future of biocomposites in the auto industry is far from certain, says Wool.

"We’re keeping a close eye on Detroit," says the professor. "They are looking at a number of different types of materials, not just biocomposites. There’s not the burning need to pursue them that there is in Europe."

For his part, Morris is quite optimistic about the future for plants in the auto industry.

"This is something that is still in its infancy," he observes. "Dozens if not hundreds of new products may soon be entering the market. And this time we are not talking about a single demonstration car constructed by one visionary, but about a number of commercially viable companies producing biobased parts for use in millions of cars."

The biological car

America’s passion for the automobile consumes an incredible amount of natural resources. As pointed out in a recent issue of the Carbohydrate Economy newsletter published by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, "Over 60 percent of the oil, 50 percent of the rubber, 65 percent of the iron, 50 percent of the carpeting and 20 percent of all electronics and aluminum produced in the U.S. each year end up in our cars and trucks."

There is another road down which we can travel, one that uses materials derived from plants to help make and fuel our vehicles. The following is a quick look at where we’re at and the direction in which we may be moving:

Interior — Composite materials made with natural fibers such as flax, hemp, jute and ramie can be used to replace fiberglass and other plastics. Carpets can be made entirely of sisal (as Chrysler demonstrated in its 1997 concept car) or hemp, which outperforms synthetic textiles.

Exterior — A soybean-oil resin is being developed for use in impact-resistant car parts. This material may eventually replace plastic and steel in car frames and bodies.

Fuels — Ethanol (a fuel made from corn, agricultural residues or wood waste) can replace 100 percent of the gasoline in your tank. Currently, 20,000 flexible-fueled vehicles (capable of running on 85 percent ethanol) are on the road in this country.

Engine oil — A blend with up to 95 percent canola oil can replace the petroleum-based hydraulic fluid and gear oil traditionally used in car engines.

Transmission fluid — Up to 50 percent of transmission fluid can be displaced with additives made entirely from crambe, rapeseed or soybean oils.

Antifreeze — Ethylene glycol, the main ingredient in antifreeze, can be made from sugars found in cheese whey, beets, corn and wood pulp.

Tires — Commercial and military aircraft tires are made with nearly 100 percent natural rubber, which is stronger and more resilient than synthetic rubber. The 66 percent of synthetic rubber in a typical car tire could be replaced with natural rubber.

Reprinted with permission of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.