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Tomato Could Be Tom-Auto Through Efforts Of Ford, Heinz

Companies explore tomato waste for eco-friendly composite car parts

by Marc S. Reisch
June 12, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 24

Credit: Shutterstock
A couple of nice ripe tomatoes.
Credit: Shutterstock

If all goes well, tomato-reinforced plastics could sprout up in cars over the next few years.

Automaker Ford Motor Co. and ketchup giant H. J. Heinz Co. have revealed that they are exploring the use of tomato skins as a reinforcing component for plastic composite car parts such as wiring brackets and coin storage bins.

At Heinz, researchers were looking for ways to repurpose peels, stems, and seeds from the more than 2 million tons of tomatoes the company uses annually to make ketchup. The unwanted materials are currently used as animal feed.

Ford scientists, meanwhile, wanted to develop a lightweight material that “reduces our overall environmental impact,” says Ellen Lee, a plastics research specialist at the firm.

So, two years ago Ford teamed up with Heinz to try fortifying polypropylene parts with a fiber made from cooked, extruded, and dried tomato skins. They found that the tomato fiber is less costly than the usual reinforcement, talc, and yields a lighter part.

Ford and Heinz are no strangers to biobased materials. Ford vehicles in production now use rice-hull-filled electrical brackets. The firm also uses polyurethane foam car seats and head restraints made with soy-based polyols. For its part, Heinz packages its 20-oz ketchup in a polyethylene terephthalate bottle made with sugar-based ethylene glycol.


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