When I look at tomatoes, I see marinara.
When Ellen Lee looks at tomatoes, she sees wiring brackets and storage bins.
Lee holds a doctorate in chemical engineering, is a plastics research technical specialist for Ford and, along with H.J. Heinz Co., is looking at ways of incorporating tomato skins into the plastics used to build vehicles.
It's just the latest in a series of steps carmakers are taking to reduce their environmental footprints. In addition to testing tomato-skin plastics, Ford is already using soybeans, wheat straw, corn, rice hulls, and coconuts in various ways around the car. Research is underway into using dandelions, sugarcane and sweet potatoes in plastics as well.
Did you know you're likely driving around on tofu? Soybean-based foam is now a common stuffing for seat cushions and backs by a number of carmakers.
"We've been at this for quite some time, more than a decade. Our group has really been committed to improving the sustainability of the composites we use in our vehicles by adding renewable content -- things we can grow -- and recyclable content," Lee said.
"So we're really focusing on agricultural byproducts, particularly fibrous byproducts, we can use to reinforce the structural integrity of our plastics."
In the case of tomatoes, the collaboration with Heinz only makes sense. Heinz gets to add another profit centre from something that normally gets thrown away and Ford gets to reduce its footprint in a number of ways, and only part of it has to do with reducing the amount of petroleum used to make plastics.
Reducing the amount of energy used to build cars is another consideration.
"We do displace some of the petroleum and we also displace some of the fillers that are very energy-intensive," she said. "We use glass fibres, and as you can imagine, glass comes from sand, and sand has to be processed at very high temperatures. So that's one area we really reduce the energy used to make our vehicles."
When you consider that only one of Heinz's tomato products -- ketchup -- sells 650 million bottles a year, that's a lot of tomato skins that could instead go into cars.
The trick is matching the structural strength of the resulting plastic with the intended use. The plastic used in a glove box, for example, doesn't need the same level of strength or durability as the plastic used for an underbody shield, for instance.
The foods used to make car parts are either byproducts unusable as food or food produced in excess amounts, such as soybeans. The use of soybeans for seat cushions is not going to spark the great tofu famine of 2024.
Ford isn't the only carmaker using food and organic byproducts to make cars. Mazda claims to have produced the first bioplastic, which it says reduces reliance on fossil fuels and cuts the CO2 emissions of car manufacturing. "In addition," a Mazda presentation says, "its manufacture involves fermentation of natural materials such as starches and sugars. As a result, it requires 30 per cent less energy to produce than oil-based polypropylene plastics."
Mazda's bioplastic appears in such components as lower dash panels, consoles and glovebox lids.
Hyundai's new 2015 Genesis incorporates corn fibre in the headliner and soy foam in the seat cushions. And while it's not food, the current Elantra uses volcanic rock in the window pillars to also reduce the car's footprint. At sister company Kia, the Soul EV electric uses bio-based plastics and foam in a variety of locations.
Chrysler is using soybean foam as a sound-absorber and body sealer on the 2014 Jeep Cherokee and 2015 Chrysler 200. Chrysler said the soy-based material is not only more effective than the petroleum-based foam it replaces, it accomplishes the tasks of blocking noise and reinforcing body panels with less material. That means less energy to make the foam and less energy to move it once it's in the car.
Mercedes-Benz uses both coconut and wood fibres in the production of such cars as the new GLA-Class. The German carmaker said this reduces weight of the car and the amount of energy used in production. In addition, the use of natural fibres makes the components easier to recycle and "if recycled in the form of energy, they have an almost neutral CO2 balance, as only as much CO2 is released as the plant absorbed during its growth."
And if food in the car parts isn't enough, how about the gas tank? We're not quite at the point of putting food waste into a Mr. Fusion at the back of a time-travelling DeLorean, but Mercedes-Benz, in collaboration with chemical engineering companies Clariant and Haltermann, is working on ethanol made from wheat straw, a byproduct whose use also poses no threat to the foodchain.