Bill McLauchlin is a veteran feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.shiftweekly.com by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.
By BILL MCLAUCHLAN
The common belief is that something won’t last very long unless it’s created in a lab. That might be always be the case, but the source material for such parts is quite literally in a liquid state.Cars with bodies and parts made from seaweed and powered by biofuel derived from algae and saltwater could be the wave of the future if a couple of companies have anything to say about it.
Toyota has an ultralight, super-efficient plug-in hybrid vehicle featuring a bioplastic body made from seaweed. According to the company, it could be available inside of 15 years.Automakers are looking for ways to increase the amount of plastic parts in cars as a means to reduce weight and production emissions. Today, steel is still thought to be the best material to crank out cars, but the use of plastic is quickly gaining ground.Even luxury automakers such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz use more plastic in their vehicles ever before . . . and that trend looks like continuing. Demand for bioplastics is expected to hit $100-billion within a couple of years, according to a 2009 USA Today story.One snag, however, is that most plastics today still trace their roots to petroleum.
Conventional petroleum-based plastic products don’t do much to alleviate North America’s dependence on oil, not to mention the associated economic, environmental and geo-political problems that come along for the ride.
That’s some of the thinking behind Toyota’s green vision for the future and the 1/X Concept, so named because its “carbon footprint” is claimed to be a fraction of that of other cars.While not totally new – the 1/X Concept made its public debut at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show – this “environmentally considerate” hybrid is an interesting spinoff on the original concept.About the same general size as Toyota’s current Prius gas-electric hybrid, the revised 1/X still combines a home-rechargeable lithium-ion battery pack with a 0.5-liter flexible-fuel engine in a drive system that’s about 25 percent of the Prius’s powertrain.A very strong carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) frame contributes to the car’s light 926-pound curb weight, less than one-third of the Prius.But the 1/X Concept’s most noteworthy attribute can be seen in bioplastic body panels derived from seaweed. “We used lightweight carbon fiber in the frame for its superior collision safety,” project manager Tetsuya Kaida said of the 1/X. “But that material is made from oil. In the future, I’m sure we will have access to new and better materials such as those made from plants, something natural.”In fact, I want to create such a vehicle from seaweed because Japan is surrounded by the sea.”Kaida added that the 1/X Concept “points the way toward a much more sustainable relationship between humans and the environment. It’s also a direction for a future Prius, two or three generations ahead of the current car.”
Florida-based Algenol Biofuels, working in partnership with Dow Chemicals, has big plans to power such future cars with its proprietary algae-to-ethanol biofuel.Typical corn-based ethanol has been criticized for straining the world’s food supply, contributing to global warming by encouraging the plowing of grasslands and consuming a substantial amounts the annual U.S. corn crop.The Algenol approach solves those problems by producing its ethanol fuel without occupying arable land or consuming feedstocks needed for human or animal consumption, a conflict that has been in the news many times this summer due to drought-ravaged crop yields.All it needs for production is seawater, sunlight and algae.Algenol has launched a demonstration facility at the chemical company’s Freeport, Tex., site where 3,100 algae “bioreactors,” through photosynthesis, convert carbon dioxide and seawater into ethanol (a hydrocarbon), oxygen and fresh water.The bioreactors are 50-foot-long by five-feet-wide troughs covered with flexible plastic (provided by Dow) and filled with about 1,000 gallons of saltwater. The water is then saturated with carbon dioxide to encourage algae growth.Unlike some existing processes that require growing algae and killing it to extract the oil – a time-consuming and expensive business – in the Algenol method the algae aren’t destroyed, so they keep yielding ethanol continuously, holding down costs.Algenol touts 6,000 gallons of ethanol per year per acre at a cost of less than $1 per gallon. By comparison, corn produces about 370 gallons per year per acre while sugar cane accounts for about 890 gallons per acre.With 139 million square miles of ocean covering the earth’s surface, and containing a volume of some 329 million cubic miles, there looks to be no shortage of future fuels from this promising process.