Introducing The New Ford Tomato

No, we are not kidding. Ford Motor Co and HJ Heinz, the well-known Pittsburgh-based maker of tomato ketchup, have announced in a joint press release that they are to team up on research on how to turn tomato skins into auto parts. According to the communique, both companies believe that the fibres from tomato skins can be used in composite materials for items such as wiring brackets or storage bins instead of the petroleum-based plastics that are currently used.

In the news release, Ellen Lee, who is the Technical Expert in Plastics Research for Ford, said, ‘We are exploring whether this food processing byproduct makes sense for an automotive application. Our goal is to develop a strong, lightweight material that meets our vehicle requirements, while at the same time reducing our overall environmental impact.’

Using the inedible portion of food crops, such as the straw we get from wheat and corn production, is well-known and in the US grain belt, there are a number of firms that already process the inedible cellulose in the stems into bio-fuel. This is where the humble tomato scores as the lovely, luscious glossy red skin that encases the fruit is actually indigestible and, along with the stems from the tomato plants, are discarded in the manufacturing of tomato ketchup.

Each year, Heinz uses over two million tons of tomatoes in the manufacturing of their ketchup, which is still their best-selling product. According to reports, the Heinz researchers are constantly looking for innovative ways to repurpose waste products. Vidhu Nagpal, the Associate Director for Packaging at Heinz, stated, ‘We are delighted that the technology has been validated. Although we are in the very early stages of research, and many questions remain, we are excited about the possibilities this could produce for both Heinz and Ford, and the advancement of sustainable 100% plant-based plastics.’

In the same release, Ford announced that the tomato waste could eventually be used in a future Fusion or perhaps an F-150. Anyone who goes into the Ford Research and Development facility would think that they had opened a restaurant. ‘When we were processing this, all I could think of was pizza,” said Lee.

Lee explained that research on plant fibres has been a decade-long project at Ford and last year, they actually introduced cellulose fibre-reinforced central console components and rice hull-filled electric cowl brackets. The company is also working with coconut waste products and recycled cotton materials for carpets and seats, all in a bid to reduce the company’s overall carbon footprint.

The push to use recycled or waste products in innovative ways has led to cross-industry partnerships. A couple of years ago, Ford and Heinz — along with Coca-Cola, Nike and Procter & Gamble — formed a research team devoted to developing 100 percent plant-based PET materials and fibre for use in a broad array of their products. PET or polyethylene terephthalate is a lightweight plastic that is used in items such as plastic bottles, shoes, fabrics and carpet.

Before the tomato can be used, there is still a long manufacturing process involving chopping, drying, baking and combining with polypropylene, but because the product is in ample supply, it is worthwhile to devise new processes for it. Well, at least that is what Ellen Lee believes. However, the resulting plastic is NOT as strong as the products it is designed to replace and, as of yet, it cannot replace structural composite. Nonetheless, Lee pointed out that cars and trucks do contain a lot of plastic products, many of which are not structural.

‘Although we are in the very early stages of research and many questions remain, we are excited about the possibilities this could produce for both Heinz and Ford, and the advancement of sustainable 100 percent plant-based plastics,’ said Nagpal.

The use of plant fibres to replace petroleum products is something we should all take a keen interest in and something we have written about before in these pages (Give me Green, Give It To Me NOW!and Why You Shouldn’t Buy A Hybrid Car). The hemp trouser-wearing brigade over at the World Wildlife Fund has created the Bio-plastic Feedstock Alliance, which is meant to make sure the use of plant products, like switch grass, corn and sugar cane for plastic products, would be done responsibly. There have been concerns that using agricultural materials in such ways might cause problems with food supplies and land use, so the use of waste products from the manufacturer of tomato ketchup is an ideal way to make plastic without creating hunger.

The graphic from the press release (below) gives a good idea of what Ford and Heinz are trying to do.

Image: Ford

They should sell the idea to Elon Musk. At least you can have a pizza when the Model S catches fire!

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