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June 22, 2014

Tomato skins appeal to Ford for use as auto parts

PITTSBURGH – In testing whether tomato peels, stems and seeds would work as part of a material that could be used inside Ford vehicles, Ellen Lee’s workspace smelled like a restaurant.

“When we were processing this, all I could think of was pizza,” said the plastics research technical specialist for the Dearborn, Mich., automaker.

Ford on June 10 announced that tomato waste — something Pittsburgh, Pa., ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co. produces in abundance — eventually could be used in a future Fusion or perhaps an F-150. The tomato fibers might end up in plastic used in wiring brackets or in storage bins that drivers use to hold coins.

As such, the ketchup byproduct could help save on fuel use since the plastic would be lighter than traditional versions. Natural fiber composites also tend to produce fewer greenhouse emissions in the manufacturing process because they are cooked at lower temperatures.

The tradeoff will not be exchanging that new car smell for the homey aroma of cooked tomatoes, Ms. Lee said.

The carmaker has a panel of people assigned to monitoring odors, a group that sniffs any components going in its vehicles to make sure drivers won’t be trapped inside with unexpected scents.

Use of plant-based plastics has been growing in many industries in recent years. A few years ago, Heinz announced a project with Coca-Cola to put ketchup into bottles made partially from sugar cane residue. Coke licensed that technology.

Ford has been working with plant fibers for more than a decade, said Ms. Lee, and last year introduced cellulose fiber-reinforced console components and rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets. The company is also working with coconut-based composite materials and recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics.

Other companies are also focused on the potential in natural fibers, and the push to innovate has led to cross-industry partnerships.

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