About 1.1 billion cars are on the world’s roads, according to a recent estimate. Each of these cars uses some form of oil-based plastic for everything from dashboards to door handles. Processing and manufacturing these artificial materials puts a huge strain on the environment. But thanks to some clever and resourceful material scientists and mechanical engineers at Baylor University, new vehicles will need a bit less plastic. That’s right, more of your next car will be made of coconuts.
Everything from Trunk Liners to Dashboards
The fibers inside coconut husks are ideal for creating trunk liners, car ceilings, dashboards, door panels and floorboards. So instead of polyester fiber, these areas can now be made with milled coconut fiber mixed with recycled polypropylene, creating a non-woven fabric composite. When these fibers are heated, they provide a moldable, durable trunk liner that’s resistant to fire, fungus and is more economical. You can’t argue with the math: virgin polyester goes for 60 cents a pound; recycled polypropylene, 47 cents; and coconut fiber, just 40 cents.
Adopting “Husky” Parts to Reinforce Plastic
Ford went to coconuts as an alternative material to some metals and plastics. They wanted materials that were renewable, recyclable and more environmentally friendly. The automaker plans to use coir (the husks, or hairy outsides of the coconut) as a reinforcement material, one that’s like carbon fiber, yet not as stiff and far more economical than the composites used in race cars. The long coconut fibers are partly visible, too, giving these parts a more natural look than ordinary plastic.
Coconut Farmers Win
Using coconuts for car parts is great news for the 11 million poor coconut farmers near the equator who grow over 5,000 coconuts annually. Selling the normally tossed out coconut husks can potentially triple a farmer’s income in just one year, not to mention the extra jobs this generates. What’s more, using coconuts for trunk liners, car ceilings, dashboards, door panels and floorboards could save more than two million barrels of oil annually. It’s sustainable, environmentally friendly and helps hold down today’s ever-escalating vehicle costs. Truly a win-win for all—environmentalists, farmers and carmakers.
This doesn’t stop with cars. Baylor scientists and Whole Tree (a company founded by Baylor grad students) are putting their heads together to make building environmentally sustainable materials for insulation and roofs in homes.