In testing whether tomato peels, stems and seeds would work as part of a material that could be used inside Ford vehicles, Ellen Lee’s workspace smelled like a restaurant.
“When we were processing this, all I could think of was pizza,” said the plastics research technical specialist for the Dearborn, Mich., automaker.
Ford on Tuesday announced that tomato waste — something Pittsburgh ketchup maker H.J. Heinz Co. produces in abundance — eventually could be used in a future Fusion or perhaps an F-150. The tomato fibers might end up in plastic used in wiring brackets or in storage bins that drivers use to hold coins.
As such, the ketchup byproduct could help save on fuel use since the plastic would be lighter than traditional versions. Natural fiber composites also tend to produce fewer greenhouse emissions in the manufacturing process because they are cooked at lower temperatures.
The tradeoff will not be exchanging that new car smell for the homey aroma of cooked tomatoes, Ms. Lee said.
The carmaker has a panel of people assigned to monitoring odors, a group that sniffs any components going in its vehicles to make sure drivers won’t be trapped inside with unexpected scents.
Use of plant-based plastics has been growing in many industries in recent years. A few years ago, Heinz announced a project with Coca-Cola to put ketchup into bottles made partially from sugar cane residue. Coke licensed that technology.
Ford has been working with plant fibers for more than a decade, said Ms. Lee, and last year introduced cellulose fiber-reinforced console components and rice hull-filled electrical cowl brackets. The company is also working with coconut-based composite materials and recycled cotton material for carpeting and seat fabrics.
Other companies are also focused on the potential in natural fibers, and the push to innovate has led to cross-industry partnerships.
In 2012, Ford and Heinz — along with Coca-Cola, Nike and Procter & Gamble — formed a collaborative devoted to developing 100 percent plant-based PET materials and fiber for use in their products. Polyethylene terephthalate, known as PET, is a lightweight plastic that is used in things like plastic bottles, shoes, fabric and carpet.
Late last year, the two companies were part of a group of consumer brand companies that joined with the World Wildlife Fund to create the Bioplastic Feedstock Alliance, 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.
The tomato experiment developed as a result of those relationships. About a year ago or so, Ms. Lee said, Heinz representatives asked if there might be a use for some of waste created when the food company chops up tons of tomatoes to make ketchup.
The resulting piles of stems and peels are now used for dairy feed, according to Michael Mullen, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs at Heinz.
Ms. Lee said the fact that there’s a lot of the stuff was a point in its favor, since there’s little interest in developing a new process for a material that is in short supply.
Before the tomato waste could be used, it needed to be dried and then ground. Then it was combined with a polypropylene and cooked.
The resulting plastic isn’t as strong as some other products. “It can’t replace a structural composite,” said Ms. Lee, but cars and trucks use so many different kinds of plastics that purposes can be found for many different kinds.
“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 Vidhu Nagpal, associate director, packaging research and development for Heinz, in the official announcement Tuesday.
Ms. Lee said the testing process will continue.
If all goes well, tomato fibers could start being part of Ford vehicles within the next couple of years.
Teresa F. Lindeman: email@example.com or at 412-263-2018. First Published June 10, 2014 9:12 AM