Oil is Outdated; New Concepts are Coming from Old Philosophies
Nearly seventy years after Henry Ford built an automobile from plants and fueled it with vegetable oil, America’s quest for energy independence is forcing the re-examination of some of his philosophies. A new bio-economy is beginning to unfold, and fascinating developments are springing from previously tested—and often discarded—technologies.
From floor coverings to auto bodies to biofuels, functional products are once again being designed without resorting to the use of petrochemicals.
Biofuels-Sources and Problems
The US government recently passed an energy bill (Public Law No: 110-140) mandating the increased use of biofuels, many of which are manufactured from food crops. Almost simultaneously, the United Nations called for a five-year moratorium on any fuel production that required the use of food crops. These contradictory policies point out the complexities involved in the development of green commodities:
- Ethanol: Ethanol can be made from nearly any fermentable biomass. Although an entire industry has sprung up around the production of corn-based ethanol, the technology has many critics who point out its shortcomings. Sugar cane may prove a better substrate for ethanol production, and other possibilities (e.g., straw, fruit and vegetable pulp) are being explored.
- Biodiesel: Fuels made from petroleum and virgin vegetable oils are not the most profitable products that can be extracted from these commodities. It makes more economic sense to make biodiesel from recycled vegetable oils or to produce it on the same farms where it is used. Though commercialization is still years away, biodiesel can also be made from algae.
Textiles-Back to the Farm
Many textiles, such as rayon and polyester, are petroleum-based synthetics that supplanted natural fibers a few decades ago. As oil prices rise, manufacturers are turning once again to fabrics derived from agriculture:
- Flax: Fibers made from this plant are stronger than fiberglass and only weigh one-third as much. Ford incorporated flax into the body of his car. BMW and Mercedes currently use flax in their door panels and dashboards. Linoleum, made from flax-based linseed oil and filler, is once more appearing on the floors of “green-construction” homes.
- Cotton, hemp, and coconut: Utilized through the ages, fibers from these plants are finding increasing uses in the production of clothing and footwear, upholstery, and paper products.
Plastics and Rubber
The tires on Henry Ford’s vehicle were created from goldenrod-based latex; a combination of flax, soybean meal and resin produced a body that was impervious to attempts to dent it with an ax. Such innovations, abandoned when the petrochemical industry expanded, are now being resurrected in the pursuit of earth-friendly technologies:
- At Oregon State University, investigators are developing a source of high-quality latex that is derived from Russian dandelions–a concept visited by a scientist of Stalin’s time. (Oregon’s Agricultural Progress, Summer 2008, Vol. 54, No.1, Oregon State University, pp 8-13)
- Rather than being discarded, materials as mundane as straw and fruit pulp are now viewed as promising sources for ethanol and specialty solvents. These solvents can be used in lieu of petrochemicals in the production of certain plastics.
Although a truly sustainable bio-economy is years away, revisiting inventions from the past may show the way into the future. The replacement of petroleum-dependent manufacturing methods by greener approaches may lead to more reasonably-priced goods as well as a cleaner planet.