Synthetic car plastics will eventually be blowing in the wind like those yellow heads of dandelions, the herbaceous perennial foliage that grows in lawns and alongside highways.
Does thinking about it make you want to sneeze? Forget the pollen. Ford has been itching for a new kind of rubber for its cars, and dandelions could be the answer.
Ford's engineers are teaming with Ohio State on developing the Russian dandelion (or TKS) as a natural rubber source for cup holders, floor mats and interior trim in its vehicles. So far, everything is coming up (cough) roses in this latest effort by the company to revamp its factory and fleet for a sustainable plug-in future.
By harvesting the weeds in neat rows in a greenhouse, researchers are able to learn how to manage the flowers and the sap that seeps from the roots, a potential source of rubber that could be even stronger than automotive plastics. The Southwestern U.S. shrub Guayule might also be used to replace the toxic alternative.
"What we are trying to do is to create sustainability of vehicles from inside and out by figuring out how we can make materials out of renewable recycled materials rather than depending on petroleum products," says Ellen Lee, a chemical engineer and member of The Ford Research Biomaterials Group in Detroit. "We are looking at how we can use things we grow to put into our cars."
Things like soy, which Ford has led the way in tapping to produce polyurethane foam seat cushions, backs and headrests. The parts are now on more than 1.5 million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles on the road, a reduction in petroleum oil usage of some four million pounds each year. Ford also broke ground with the industry's first use of a soy-foam headliner on the 2010 Escape and Mercury Mariner for a 25 percent weight savings versus a traditional glass-mat headliner.
Along the way, their campaign also reaches out to young women who are a minority in the automotive and engineering fields. The team hopes to set an example of what female scientists can do to expedite the development of responsible parts for vehicles.
"Five of us are moms and are working on biotechnology with Ford," says Lee. "We are getting out there to say women should pursue careers in engineering since biotechnology is fast becoming a number-one field. "
In the meantime, they hope to get all of us thinking about how to incorporate available plants as possible materials in our every day lives. It all makes sense when you consider dandelion root is used medicinally to ease everything from a loss of appetite to insufferable intestinal gas, excruciating gallstones, nagging joint pain, muscle aches, eczema and bruises. It helps increase urine production, prompt bowel movements and is a stimulating skin toner, blood and digestive tonic. Some use it to treat infections or to spice up salad greens, soups, wine and teas.Now that's some killer weed.