The US Department of Agriculture has just kicked off a $10 million bioproduct and biofuel research project aimed at the automotive industry, and in case you’re wondering why the USDA is involved in auto manufacturing, just look at that word bioproducts again. Part of USDA’s mission is to help the agriculture industry develop new markets, and a recent USDA study confirms what we’ve been noticing, which is that auto manufacturers are using more bioplastics and other biobased materials. We’re not exactly looking to a future where cars grow on trees, but at least there will be more sustainable car parts made from sources other than petrochemicals.
Rural Economies Get a Bioproduct Lift
At the very least, bioplastic, biofuel, and other crop-based products provide a long-term incentive for farmland and water supply preservation.
In the context of the natural gas fracking “gold rush” that is pouring money into rural communities while putting water resources at risk and creating earthquakes, among other hazards, bioproduct crops present a more sustainable path to local job creation.
To cite just one example of the potential scale of the economic impact, DuPont’s new biorefinery in Iowa alone will recruit 500 local farmers to keep it supplied with corn stover, the leaves and stems left over from harvest.
USDA Gives $10 Million for Sustainable Car Parts
The new grants were awarded by USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which was established under the 2008 Farm Bill. The funds will be spread among more than two dozen research institutions across the country, primarily in public universities.
The goal is to develop regional systems for producing sustainable biofuels and biobased products.
Unlike the fracking boom, USDA’s bioproduct grant initiative is pre-planned for sustainable growth. Job creation and reducing dependence on foreign oil are only two challenges in the competitively awarded grants. Awardees must also develop systems that fit within existing agricultural frameworks, and achieve net positives for community and environmental health.
Car Parts and products
The automotive bioproduct boomlet is being spurred along partly by the emergence of electric vehicles and tighter energy efficiency standards, in which weight is a critical factor.
Bioproducts not only offer a chance to reduce weight, there is also some potential for them to achieve greater strength and durability than their petrochemical counterparts.
Ford has been particularly active in the trend away from petrochemicals, which includes recycling, along with the development of new bioproducts. Ford’s recent endeavors include soy foam seat cushions, recycled denim and carpeting, wheat straw filler for storage bins, and a collaboration with Weyerhaeuser to develop a tree cellulose substitute for fiberglass.
Ford is also developing a dandelion-based rubber substitute that could be used for other interior parts like floor mats and cup holders.
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.