Imagine dashboards, bumpers and side panels of your car being made from fruit… seems unrealistic huh ?
Well, get used to the idea, because according to a Brazilian research team, their new plant fiber-based plastic, which is lighter yet stronger, and obviously more eco-friendly than conventional plastics currently in use, would offer enormous mechanical advantages if used in automobile manufacture, including affording greater resistance to damage from heat, spilled gasoline, water, and oxygen.
The rise of “Green Plastic”
These completely renewable fruit-based plastic fibres can be almost as stiff as Kevlar, according to Alcides Leão, lead scientist of the Sao Paolo team developing the plastic. However, their major point of difference lies in the fact that these nano-cellulose fibers would be made from source materials that are completely biodegradable and renewable.
The research team has stated that while current production efforts concentrate on developing and manufacturing automotive plastics, further innovation and future development directions are likely to end up in automotive steel and aluminum being replaced by these green fruit-based plastics.
The processing technology used for the manufacture of these green plastics is fundamentally the same as using extracted cellulose particles from wood, grinding them up and making paper.
The jump in manufacturing process here lies in the recent discovery that highly intensive processing of such materials results in tiny fiber particles – so small that about 50,000 could fit across the width of a human hair – being produced, and mixing in tiny cellulose fiber particles in the manufacture of plastics allows for the development of a final product that is considerably stronger and more durable.
Leaves and stems of pineapples are likely to be a promising source of readily and naturally available nano-cellulose, according to Alcides Leão, team leaders of the Brazilian research team. These leaves and stems, if put in a pressure-cooker like assembly with certain chemical additives, produce a fine powder after going through several heat cycles. This fine powder can then be used to produce stronger and more durable eco-friendly plastic.
And while this process is currently an expensive one, the scientists from Sao Paulo State University have stated that 100 pounds of reinforced plastic could be generated from one pound of nano-cellulose. If this happens, the math could eventually add up when the technology is scaled up and also in terms of longer-term cost-savings.
Coir fibers from coconut shells, banana and sisal fibers produced from the agave plant have been identified by the research team as other possible sources for producing these super-strong green plastics.
According to Leão, the properties plastics so produced would be incredible.
Expressing his excitement at the prospect of developing this new material, he said in a statement, "They are light, but very strong – 30 per cent lighter and 3 to 4 times stronger. We believe that a lot of car parts, including dashboards, bumpers, side panels, will be made of nano-sized fruit fibers in the future. For one thing, they will help reduce the weight of cars and that will improve fuel economy."
And of course, if this revolution does take place, cars wouldn’t be the only ones substituting conventional plastics with the new green kinds. At the 241st National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society last weekend, Leao presented his team's findings, suggesting that alternative uses for the plastics are also likely to include medical applications such as hip replacements, artificial heart valves and ligaments.
He said “Personally, I'm pulling for Apple to make a claim for use in iPhones and iPads, for the "Apple/Banana" branding opportunities alone.”