Energy and natureRecently, a $10 million bioproduct and biofuel research project aimed to change the automotive industry was begun by the US Department of Agriculture. While seemingly strange bedfellows, the USDA actively tries to help the agriculture industry develop new markets, and the automobile industry is using more bioplastics and biobased materials. The ultimate goal of the partnership is to create more sustainable car parts from sources other than petrochemicals.

The 2008 Farm Bill, which established the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), was responsible for awarding the grants to make this initiative possible. Over two dozen public university research institutions across the US will receive the funds to develop regional systems to produce sustainable biofuels and biobased products.

The interest in biobased materials in the automotive industry is due partly to the emergence of electric vehicles and tighter energy efficiency standards. Weight plays a critical factor in energy efficiency, and bioproducts tend to be light weight and may attain greater strength and durability than petrochemical parts.

Ford Motor Company is one of the big auto companies that has been actively trying to reduce dependence on petrochemicals and is developing new bioproducts and increasing its recycling efforts. Ford’s achievements include recycled denim and carpeting, wheat straw filler for storage bins, soy foam seat cushions, and a project with Weyerhaeuser to develop tree cellulose substitute for fiberglass. Amazingly, Ford also has a dandelion-based rubber substitute in development which could be used for floor mats, cup holders, and other interior parts.

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