Food for thought … and auto parts


Farmers, restaurateurs and grocers might be the newest link in the auto-supply chain. 

But it’s not as if the University of Guelph, Canadian bio-materials company Competitive Green Technology, Ford Motor Co. and McDonald’s have brewed up something all that new when it comes to turn- ing coffee-bean skins into plastic headlight housings. 

While the coffee idea is unique, food in cars isn’t. It’s not even the first time Ford turned to food for car parts. Henry Ford unveiled his “Soybean Car” — a plastic-bod- ied car made from the cash crop — on Aug. 13, 1941, at Dearborn Days, an annual community festival. 

According to the Henry Ford Museum, the car’s frame, made of tubular steel, had 14 plastic panels attached to it. The car reportedly weighed 2,000 pounds (900 kilograms), which was 1,000 pounds (450 kilo- grams) less than an average all- steel car of the day

Meanwhile, Debbie Mielewski, currently the senior technical leader of Ford’s sustainability and emerging materials research team, has also experimented with agave plants, dandelions, tomato skins and shredded money. Much of the waste comes from partners including Jose Cuervo, Coca-Cola and Nike. 

The 1957 Trabant was the “edible” automobile. To manu- facture the car’s bumpers, fibrous reinforcement from the dye industry in East Germany was combined with cotton waste from the Soviet Union. There are stories of pigs and goats eating abandoned and parked Trabants made from organic compounds. 

But you won’t be able to drink the headlight housings for the Lincoln Continental. You’ll still need a cup of joe for your morning wake-me-up. That’s because Competitive Green Technology, thanks to research at the University of Guelph, will be turning coffee bean skins — not the beans themselves — into plastic resin. Varroc Lighting Systems in nearby Plymouth, Mich., will mould the resin into car parts. 

And much like it’s not Ford’s first go-round with organic material, neither is it a Canadian university’s first foray into food in cars. In 2017, Automobile News | Canada reported on researchers at the University of British Columbia Okanagan and the University of Manitoba working with industry partners on moulded tubs for “urban utility vehicles,” used in places like airport and university campuses. 

Fibres from the flax stems typically a waste material in Canada — replace the glass fibres used in standard composites. Resins are made from chemicals produced by bacteria that feed on flax oil, among other things. The results are tubs with “lower weight, lower environmental impact, and ultimately lower production cost.” 

All of this could mean a greener, cleaner future as waste that was normally sent to the dump or burned is turned into just about anything plastic in a vehicle. And Ford is at the fore front. 

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