The first time I realized automakers like to make parts out of unconventional materials, I was down in Brazil watching low-tech workers with machetes hack up coconut shells. The shells — usually just thrown away — were headed for the headliners of tiny Mercedes A-Class cars on the Brazilian market.
From the beginning, Ford looked to nature for car parts. Whatever else he might have been, Henry Ford was devoted to the lowly soybean, and made at least two cars out of the material. He also personally stepped up with a hammer to demonstrate the toughness of his eco-friendly fenders.
Now Ford has its eyes set on another humble product, one usually murdered by the millions when minimum-wage teenagers get the lawnmowers out. Yes, it’s the dandelion. “We’re always looking for new sustainable materials to use in our vehicles that have a smaller carbon footprint to produce and can be grown locally,” said Angela Harris, a Ford researcher. “Dandelions have the potential to serve as a great natural alternative to synthetic rubber in our products.”
It’s not just any dandelion. Yours aren’t good enough — unless they happen to be Russian dandelions. That’s what they’re growing at the Ohio State Agricultural Research and Development Center. Those guys produce just the right milk-white liquid to make into fake rubber.
You can’t buy a Ford dandelion car just yet. Like many great ideas that may never make it to production, this one is still in the research phase. It has to meet “durability standards” in a wide variety of automotive applications.
I recently visited SG Biofuels, which can make high-grade diesel fuel from the tropical jatropha plant for just $1.40 a gallon. Why aren’t we using it to get away from imported oil? You can’t grow jatropha in the U.S. (it’s a tropical plant, remember) so we’d have imported jatropha. Dandelions, even if they’re Russian, can be grown in the U.S. without a visa. In fact, they’re weeds, right? (Useful weeds: you can make wine out of them.)
So visit Ohio State and see rows of neatly cultivated weeds, all in the hope of making homegrown natural rubber. Another plant being investigated for the same purpose is a southwestern shrub known as guayule. The university has been working on dandelions for a while; it teamed up with Bridgestone to make tires out of them in 2008.
Recycled rubber is already widely deployed in the auto industry, and all of the Big Three are either using it or working on it. The industry used 7,500 tons of recycled rubber in 2006. The new Ford Focus uses a lot of recycled content, including worn-out blue jeans in the hood insulation.
But Jim Kliesch, a researcher at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the New York Times that the company should concentrate on greening its fleet, since the EPA gives it relatively low marks in terms of fuel economy and carbon emissions. “What Ford is doing is admirable,” he said, “but at the same time it’d make a lot more sense to improve the overall efficiency of their fleet. I raise this simply to point out that Ford still has work to do.”