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Tomatoes And Plant-Based Car Technology

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September 22, 2014


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Tomatoes And Plant-Based Car Technology

Tomatoes And Plant-Based Car Technology

Staying on top in the car game requires constant innovation, both inside and out. Engines are made more efficient, fuel economy is improved, and millions of dollars are spent on developing new materials to make a vehicle and it’s components lighter, stronger, or more environmentally friendly. A few years ago materials such as carbon fibre were nearly mythical, and might only be found in million dollar cars. Those “suede” seats in your car are probably alcantara, not cowhide.

Ford Motor Co. is paying close attention to tomatoes right now. Tomato fibres to be exact. The automaker is studying ways to use tomato stems, peels and seeds as sustainable plant-based plastics as an alternative to current materials. It’s no surprise that Ford’s partner in this research is ketchup conglomerate H.J. Heinz Co., a company that uses more than 2 million tons of tomatoes every year to produce ketchup.

“We are exploring whether this food processing by-product makes sense for an automotive application,” said Dr. Ellen Lee, a Plastics Research Technical Specialist for Ford. “Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.”

There are already many plant-based materials used in automobile production, usually substitute fillers and adhesives that once depended on petroleum-based materials. The oils used to form the material in seat cushioning are no longer petroleum, and have been replaced by soybean or vegetable oils. Headrests, bumpers and trim pieces are often made these days by utilizing plant-based materials.

Ford’s team is looking for solutions to create a plant-based alternative to all of a car’s plastics, even large scale components such as dashboards and full bumpers. In addition, new tire compounds, paints and glues may follow afterwards. Ford is working with Coca-Cola to develop harder plastics that can withstand more wear and tear through the use of sugar and biomass. The Coca-Cola PlantBottle is 30 percent plant-based and the technology may be used for automotive purposes. In the Ford Focus EV, the trunk package tray is made from coconut husks.

The idea of plant-based materials in cars is not new. Henry Ford himself wanted to work closely with farmers. He felt that if plastics could be made from farm materials, a mutually beneficial relationship between Ford and farmers could develop. The automaker experimented in the 1940s with a car that used plastic components rather than steel. The idea at the time was that a lighter car was a safer car. That car never made it to the production stage, but the New York Times did comment, “The motor car business is just one of the industries that can find new uses for plastics, made from what’s grown in the land!”

Once automakers work out the bugs (no pun intended) related to plant-based plastics such as how they react to stress and heat, perhaps the idea of a car that is largely plant-based and more sustainable will become a reality.

By Linda

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