‘BioCar’ parts to come from the farm
Friday March 9, 2007
University of Waterloo Prof. Leonardo Simon says straw can be used to make plastics for the auto industry.
Farmers will also be auto parts manufacturers if local scientists succeed in developing materials for automobiles using crops like corn and wheat.
Yesterday, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty — making his second automotive-based research announcement in two days — committed nearly $6 million to the “BioCar” initiative.
The money is matched by industry and universities, making the project worth almost $18 million.
Sixteen scientists at the University of Guelph, the project’s leader, as well as the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto and the University of Windsor, will develop biomaterials for the automotive industry.
“One way of looking at it is ultimately taking farmers and turning them into car parts manufacturers,” said Prof. Michael Worswick, associate dean of research for University of Waterloo’s faculty of engineering.
“BioCar is a neat project in the sense that it’s taking agricultural products . . . and processing those as polymer sources to develop plastics that can actually go into car parts manufacturing,” Worswick said.
“That’s an incredibly compelling story for this province.
“Imagine what that could do to that (farming) industry. It could give that industry a brand-new market.”
McGuinty announced Wednesday that McMaster University and the University of Waterloo would receive $15.6 million to make vehicles lighter.
For the U of G-led BioCar project, UW will receive about $1.2 million of the total $6 million.
One role of University of Guelph researchers is to create new industrial crops that can be turned into composite materials used to make interior automobile components, U of G said in a statement.
“Imagine every car in Ontario having a ‘green’ interior, with the dashboard, seats, head rests, door panels and other parts made from composites of agricultural crops like corn and wheat,” U of G says.
Guelph researchers will look at raw agricultural materials and study crop genetics. Then, in collaboration with University of Toronto scientists, the project moves to processing and separating the biological feedstock.
Then it’s UW’s turn. UW scientists will engineer composite resins and polymers to be used in automotive parts.
“This is a very important role for the university,” said UW chemical engineering Prof. Leonardo Simon, who is UW’s principal investigator along with Prof. Raymond Legge.
There are two ways of doing it, Simon said.
“We can obtain chemicals from the agricultural industry and transform them into polymer materials,” he said.
“The other way of doing it is obtaining fibres from the agricultural industry like wheat or straw and chemically modifying these fibres to obtain new functionality and then transforming these modified fibres into composites.”
The project then moves to the University of Windsor where the new products will be incorporated into automobiles.
“It’s a whole new way of looking at agriculture and a whole new relationship between the sector and Ontario’s economy,” said University of Guelph plant agriculture Prof. Larry Erickson, one of the lead researchers.
“It opens the door for a lot more approaches and utilization of crops. Now, agriculture is more than meat and potatoes; it’s car parts, building materials, fuel and more.”
For years, scientists have known that plant material can be used to make components in the manufacturing process, U of G says.
But research efforts haven’t focused on that sort of crop use because there was an abundant supply of low-cost petroleum, Erickson said.
“All of that has changed now, (and) we have to catch up and make up for lost time and develop alternative technology,” he said.
“This is huge,” Simon said. “Agricultural and automotive are the No. 1 and 2 economies in Ontario.”
Simon predicted there will be a demonstration product in two years.