Posted by: Roger Poole18 AUG 2014
The International Energy Agency predicts that the price of oil will double by 2030, while extracting it will become ever more difficult and costly. Similar problems are anticipated for many of the mined minerals used in industrial production. Developing viable alternatives from renewable sources is a priority and recent reports of a partnership between the Ford Motor Company and Heinz to use waste tomato material gives us an idea of what might happen in the future.
Heinz processes more than 2 million tons of tomatoes a year when making food products like sauces and soups but has no good use for the waste material. Meanwhile, Ford would like to develop new plastics to make components such as wiring brackets, storage bins and cup holders the manufacture of which currently relies on talc, a limited mined resource. Ford’s plastics research department has already made a material using 20% tomato waste and 80% plastic from other sources which is lighter than current plastics. However, its long-term goal is to create something like a tomato-reinforced corn resin derived from 100% renewable resources. Car parts made from such a material would not only be sustainable, but also compostable.
Ford has a history of forging strong links between agriculture and industry. In the 1930s Henry Ford invested in chemurgy — the application of chemistry and allied sciences in developing new uses for agricultural produce. Whether one admires Ford’s industrial foresight or loathes his political and religious views, his company did invest heavily in soybean research. Filling seat cushions and headrests with soy-based polyurethane foam instead of oil-based foam is just one example already in use.
Nowadays other car component makers are trying to integrate renewable resources such as corn and sugar cane into their products. The tyre-maker Continental makes rubber from the sap of Russian dandelions, Taraxacum kok-saghyz, while other companies manufacture components from wheat straw-reinforced plastic and layers of insulating material formed out of kenaf fibres.
Kenaf, Hibiscus cannabinus, may be good for our health too. It was unknown in the West until the late 18th century, when cordage and sacking made from the fibre arrived in Europe. It came into use during the 1939-45 war when jute was in short supply. Now Kenaf is cultivated in many parts of the world not only for its fibres but also because its seeds yield an oil high in omega polyunsaturated fatty acids.