Too Many Tomatoes? Make Car Parts!

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Tomato_jeIf you’re a gardener, this is the time of year where you might be drowning in an abundance of ripe, juicy tomatoes. Don’t worry; if you’re getting tired of caprese salad and tomato sauce you can turn them into car parts.

In June, the Ford Motor Company announced a partnership with Heinz to develop a plastic derived from leftover tomato skins. The plan is to use the tomato-based plastic to produce wiring brackets and storage bins for cars. Tomato refuse is particularly attractive because it could be used to make lighter plastics than that produced with today’s materials. And, a lighter car means better fuel economy. It’s a good deal for Heinz, too. The company processes more than two million tons of tomatoes a year, but has no good use for the leftovers.

So, how do you turn tomato refuse into plastic? First the fibers need to be ground and dried. Then, a molten plastic is added as a binder and the mixture is run through an injection mold. The result is a product made up of about 20 percent tomatoes and 80 percent plastic. But, Debbie Mielewski, a technical leader for the team working on this project is not bothered by the small percentage. She says, “We’re still talking about a ton of value, because millions of applications for this could pop up,” she says. “We already see a lot of soy-based materials used in office furniture and mattresses. And we want that; we want other industries to take advantage of our technology.”

Besides producing a lighter-weight material this effort fits in with the company’s long term goal of using more and more 100-percent renewable resources, which means good public relations,  a more reliable supply of materials and cost savings. The price of oil, the typical main component of plastics, is over $100 per barrel today. When Ford’s plastics research department opened it was about $50 a barrel.

Since different plastics are used on different car parts, in addition to tomatoes, Ford’s research team is looking at a variety of different renewable materials for their needs, including dandelions, corn, sugar cane, and recycled currency. So, one day that “new car smell” may contain a hint of ketchup or popcorn.

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