All Natural Mobility

More biobased materials are working their way into the automobile industry's new designs as consumers increasingly desire "green" features in their vehicles. Everything from the tires and windshields to the interior carpeting and seat foam are becoming biobased rather than petroleum-based.
By Lindsey Irwin
Imagine a vehicle one-third the weight of today's typical car made almost entirely out of vegetables and natural sources that can travel 70 to 80 miles on one gallon of fuel. Harry Featherstone has dreamt of such a vehicle and is currently working with a number of organizations to make it a reality. Featherstone, a former director at Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Daimler-Chrysler Corp. has worked in practically every department-control, production and head of engineering, to name a few. His interest in automobiles dates back to when he and his friends used to tinker with an old Ford Model T. "We must have torn it down and put it back together 20 times," Featherstone says. After a long and successful career in a number of auto-related ventures, Featherstone is now devoted to an organization he began two years ago called Seeds of Opportunity (SO). Composed of a number of Wooster, Ohio, businesses, SO actively seeks the realization of the Agri-Car, a biomass-based vehicle that could change the face of transportation in a number of ways, Featherstone explains. With his expertise in the automotive world, he knew what was needed to produce the ultimate Agri-Car, but whether his wishes were feasible was another story. During the past year, he has chatted with some of the greatest minds in the academic field challenging them to build his Agri-Car.

"I made phone calls to the University of California-San Diego's marine division-Tsinghau University in Beijing, China, and then I went to the Goodyear Polymer Center at the University of Akron and the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State University," Featherstone says. "I went to all of them and all of them said, ‘Harry, I think we can do this.'"

Five major elements are required to create Featherstone's biobased vehicle:

New nonsteel framework material: A material that is 10 times lighter and 10 times more elastic so it can be formed and malleable yet is tough. This would lead to the exclusion of the inner body of the car, creating more room for protection, as well as reducing overall vehicle weight and cost thus increasing fuel efficiency and safety.

Carbon dioxide conversion system: A retrofit device system that converts carbon dioxide to neutral in today's internal combustion engine exhaust.

New engine system: By looking to some of nature's innovations like the electricity in an electric eel, the sensory abilities of creatures that live in the ocean depths and the inner eye system of the Bengal tiger, Featherstone designed an engine system containing light/solar cells that fuel a battery.

Nonpetroleum lubricants: According to Featherstone's calculations there is a potential to eliminate 50 million barrels of oil annually by using alternative sources for lubricants, such as emulsified lard. Featherstone received a patent for this technology in the 1950s, but at that time was not able to remove the odor. Today this is possible, he says.

Natural rubber tires: At Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center (OARDC) researchers are developing a species of dandelion from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to use as an American-grown source of natural rubber. Additionally, Japan-based Yokohama Tires has developed a technology that blends citrus oil with natural rubber to make tires, eliminating 80 percent of the petroleum.

Developers of the Agri-Car project are in the process of assembling a formal entity that will pursue the concept and put everything under one umbrella. At the moment it is "a dispersed set of resources and activities that all contribute," says Jim Currie, codirector of an Ohio State University program designed to connect research and researchers with public and private applications in the marketplace. Currie and Featherstone continue to work closely on the Agri-Car project. Currie says that there are many research projects going on at universities today that may not be directed specifically at automobiles, but could have applications. For example, the OARDC is currently working with an outside entity to further develop biobased fibers that can replace glass fibers in fiberglass and polymers. These fibers, found in automobile dashboards and most molded and extreated plastics, give the products strength and prevent them from weakening and falling apart, Currie says.

Conversely, biobased products that are being developed for the automobile industry may be used in other products. "You can develop an Agri-Car simply for the sake of the car, but at the same time you can use that to drive the research in planning ahead for much broader applications than just a car," Currie says. "If it's useful in developing this type of fiber in automotive parts, then it certainly is useful for say children's highchairs."

Hitting the Road
Several automobile manufacturers are already offering components derived from renewable sources. Volvo Car Corp. currently uses renewable sources in nearly 100 biobased components, mostly sound absorption blocks or mats made of cotton fibers. In addition, the company has plans for producing hard components such as dashboards and ceilings using flax and cellulose, as well as seats using natural fibers such as hemp, sisal, jute and soy foam fillings, according to the company's Web site. Mercedes-Benz has developed a concept car called the RECY that is 100 percent recyclable, created from sustainable sources and powered by biodiesel. Honda has created a plant-based biofabric for its FC concept vehicle's interior upholstery.

The Ecology Center, a toxic chemicals watchdog that is focused on the automobile industry, recently released its 2006 Automotive Plastics Report that grades the country's eight leading auto manufacturers on their plastics policies and practices. The report found that Toyota Motor Corp. continued to lead the biobased materials movement by pioneering the development of a corn- or sugarcane-based Eco Plastic and building a pilot plant to produce it. Daimler-Chrysler wasn't far behind having increased its use of biobased materials an incredible 98 percent over previous models by incorporating the use of natural fibers made from flax and abaca. Ford was also given a high ranking within this category.

Perhaps one of the industry's leaders in greener vehicles and the first American company to put a hybrid on the road, Ford is offering sustainable interior materials and has plans to increase those offerings in the near future. According to Carol Kordich, Ford's North American strategic design director for interior fabrics, Ford believes that it's important-especially for the hybrid models-to incorporate as many materials that are recycled or sustainable as possible. In January, Ford unveiled its premium four-door coupe the Lincoln MKR Concept vehicle at the North American Auto Show in Detroit. In addition to being E85 compatible, the MKR incorporates Ford's new line of guilt-free luxury interior features, including a reengineered oak instrument panel. The panel has been recycled and reassembled grain by grain, stained black to give it a rich appearance all without using any additional trees. Also included are renewable soy foam seats and mohair carpet. The leather utilized in the MKR seat covers is chrome-free, meaning that no toxins are used during the tanning process.

Kordich says initially there may be a cost increase associated with some of the green interior features, but as the new products grow in volume and acceptance, the cost is expected to come down to the equivalent of materials previously used. Kordich's nearly 20 years in the architectural design industry provided her experience with the green trend as a lot of the same changes occurred that field before she joined the automobile industry in 2000. "I expect the same thing to happen in the auto industry," she says. "There is another trend there as well-consumers will pay more to match the dollars with their values."

Drivers will also see some of Ford's new biomass-based features in the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid. Kordich says the new Escape features the application of seating surfaces made from 100 percent post-industrial materials supplied by Interface Fabric Inc., an international producer of biodegradable panel fabrics and textile products for commercial interiors. By utilizing post-industrial yarn fibers rather than virgin fibers, Interface Fabrics estimates it could conserve 600,000 gallons of water, 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents and more than 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually.

Like Ford's relationship with Interface Fabrics, there are a number of suppliers now offering a range of renewable products to auto manufacturers. Companies like Lear Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc. are producing soy foam compositions that are being used in vehicle interiors by the major automotive manufacturers, while groups like Lansing, Mich.-based KTM Industries Inc. are supplying packing foam made from starches used by auto companies to ship parts. Tim Colonnese, president and CEO of KTM Industries, says that his company's customers, including Volvo, Toyota and BMW, utilize KTM's foam for sending everything from electronics to glass. Clients love the fact that the product is both sustainable and cost-effective, he says. The Woodbridge Group, a global retailer of polyurethane foams for the auto industry, adopted the use of biobased polyols, which Cargill Inc. produces from natural oils such as linseed, rapeseed, soybeans and sunflowers, and uses them in the company's flexible foam products since.

Due to the increased interest in this area, the 2007 Ward's Auto Interior Show, which was scheduled for June 6-7, included for the first time a panel that specifically addressed how automakers are making strides in their efforts to use environmentally-friendly materials that are biobased and renewable titled "Environmentally Friendly Interior Materials: Changing the Way We Build." Conference Manager Cristina Cotto says the conference and expo is in its 14th year of bringing suppliers and buyers together. Environmental issues are a hot topic, she says. "Last year there were a few attendees who marked down on their surveys that they would like to hear more about environmentally-friendly materials being used by auto makers, and it was also a topic for our awards [that are given out during the show," Cotto says. "So we thought it would be a good topic to cover."

As research into more sustainable vehicles continues on different fronts, Featherstone is glad to see that some groups are joining forces, as with the different universities coming together to pursue the Agri-Car project in Ohio. "Everything is possible," he says quoting Albert Einstein. Despite all his acquired patents, ample experience and business success, this venture is unlike any other. "It's the most exciting thing I have ever done," Featherstone says. "There are various things throughout the world that I have made and I have made millions of dollars, but this is so exciting because it has so much potential."

Lindsey Irwin is a Biomass Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 746-8385.