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Composites made from plant waste are lighter and cheaper than conventional composites. They are also recyclable and biodegradable. Will they find their way into the cars of the future?


Composite Panels Made From Plants Could Make Vehicles More Fuel Efficient

Composites made from plant waste are lighter and cheaper than conventional composites. They are also recyclable and biodegradable. Will they find their way into the cars of the future?

A research project led by scientists at the University of Portsmouth in the UK has led to new lightweight, biodegradable composites made from plant waste. The composites are inexpensive to manufacture and could substitute for many non-structural components in automobiles, trucks, and boats. Their low weight would help those vehicles become more fuel efficient.

date palm composite

Dr Hom Dhakal heads the advanced materials and manufacturing research group at the University of Portsmouth and is the co-author of a study published this month in the journal Industrial Crops and Products. He tells Science Daily, “Investigating the suitability of date palm fiber waste biomass as reinforcement in lightweight composite materials provides a tremendous opportunity of utilizing this material to develop low-cost, sustainable and lightweight bio-composites.

“The impact of this work would be extremely significant because these lightweight alternatives could help reduce the weight of vehicles, contributing to less fuel consumption and fewer C02 emissions. The sustainable materials can be produced using less energy than glass and carbon fiber and are biodegradable, therefore easier to recycle.”

The researchers focused their effort on date palm fiber, which is plentiful in North Africa and the Middle East. In most cases, it is either burned or sent to landfills. They found composites made from date palm fiber have increased tensile strength and better low velocity impact resistance than traditional composites, which cost more to manufacture and are not biodegradable.

Dhakal says, “It takes a long time to convince people to use a new class of materials, such as natural fiber reinforced composites for non-structural and structural applications.” But he and his team will persevere. Their goal now is getting consistent and reliable results in their testing protocols. “Meeting these challenges requires further research and innovation between academic institutions and industry,” he says. The researchers are working closely with various manufacturers to test the strength and viability of parts made from flax, hemp, and jute as well as date palm fibers.

Everything Old Is New Again

Henry Ford soybean car

In 1941, Henry Ford showed off a car whose body panels were made from a new plastic derived from soybeans. A famous photograph showed Ford whacking the body of the car with a sledgehammer to demonstrate how strong and dent resistant the new exterior panels were.

Lowell Overly, the Ford employee in charge of the project, said the body panels were made from “soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation,” according to a 2015 report by Mac’s Motor City Garage. Many modern chemical engineers doubt the accuracy of that claim, and an urban legend has sprung up that says the body was actually made from hemp.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Ford’s revolutionary car weighed less than 2,000 lbs — an important attribute at a time when gasoline was in short supply. The car was seen twice in public then disappeared, never to be referred to again. Reportedly, Ford ordered it destroyed. The Ford soybean car nevertheless lives on in myth, along with the 200 mpg carburetor and GM’s EV1 electric car.


Few engineers were English majors in college, which is why the word “lightweighting” has now crept into the lexicon of automotive terms. As regulators demand lower emissions (except in the United States), making vehicles lighter is one proven way of making them more fuel efficient with lower pollution levels. Composites made from plant waste could be an important part of that process. The fact that they are recyclable and biodegradable makes them even more suitable for use in the transportation devices of the future, whatever they may be.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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