"Manufacturers pay a lot of money here to landfill something," says Mark Johnson, an engineer at the University of Warwick Manufacturing Group in England. "If it's made from degradable parts, you don't have to pay."
Johnson and his team have been creating parts from elephant grass, a bamboo-like plant that, he says, requires less processing than hemp to harden and mold into car components.
German car companies including Mercedes (Daimler/Chrysler), BMW, and Audi Volkswagen have been leading the way in incorporating plant fibers in their models. Since the introduction of jute-based door panels in the Mercedes E class five years ago, German car companies have more than tripled their use of natural fibers to about 15,500 tons in 1999.
The next trend could be in building the shells of cars from plants. Crosky says he and his team are now looking at building exterior car panels from hemp.
In the United States, automobile companies have approached the idea more gingerly.
"We use natural fibers only when it makes sense technologically," says Phil Colley, a spokesperson for the Ford Motor Co.
Colley says Ford has used flax, recycled cotton, and a 14-foot-tall, fibrous crop called kenaf in some parts, including under front hoods to dampen the sound of slamming them shut. Deere & Co. has used soy-based fiberglass composites in the panels of some of its tractors. By 2010 the New Jersey consulting firm Kline & Company anticipates natural fibers to replace a fifth of the fiberglass in current U.S. car models.
While researchers tout their benefits, Colley points out that are there are some drawbacks. Smell can become a problem, he says, particularly with hemp which can produce a musty odor when incorporated into a vehicle.
"You have to take into account all the tradeoffs," Colley says.
Inspirations in History
Although fiber car components may be a thing of the future, the idea of manufacturing material from fibrous plants dates back to ancient times. Fragments of fabric woven from hemp have been found from 8000 B.C. Bamboo and sturdy grasses have been used in construction for centuries and plots in Japan still provide hemp to weave the emperor's religious robes.
Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Co., first toyed with the idea of plant-based car parts in 1940, when he took an ax and whacked the hood of a car trunk made from a soybean-based material to test its strength.
The car hood reportedly withstood the blow and now, 70 years later, car companies, including Ford's own, have finally begun to put the concept to use.
"Increasing the use of biodegradable and recycled materials will lower the impact of vehicle disposal," says Jim Kliesch, a researcher at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a nonprofit, Washington-based organization dedicated to improving the environmental impact of technologies. "And that can only be a good thing."
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