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Agriculture USDA funds sustainable car part research

Published on December 17th, 2012 | by Tina Casey

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Next-Gen Electric Vehicles Could Be Home Grown, In More Ways Than One

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December 17th, 2012 by  

 
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.

USDA funds sustainable car part research

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.

Other areas of investigation in the automotive industry have ranged into some pretty strange territory, including coconut husks, cow bones, and chicken feathers.

Image: Wheat spikes by Dag Endresen

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey

 

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About the Author

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. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Bob_Wallace

    Fact is, our batteries are not quite up to snuff yet. We need about 2x more capacity to make EVs viable for the majority of drivers. I’m guessing that will happen in short years, under five.

    When we get better batteries it will take a few years for sales volumes up enough to bring down manufacturing costs and cause the Great Switch To EVs.

    And then it will take 15 or more years to get ICEVs off our roads.

    Bio-oooze is better than de-sequestered carbon-oooze for our planet. We’re going to be burning a lot of something over the next 20 or so years.

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