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That new-car smell? Coconut

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Palms down, it could be the must-have automobile option for the conscientious.

It's green. It's thrifty. It's politically correct, sustainable, practical. And there's a certain tropical cachet at work as well.

Behold: The coconut car interior.

Baylor University researchers announced Tuesday that they have developed a way to transform the fibrous, thready husks of coconuts into some snappy automotive designs, including door coverings, floorboards and trunk liners.

"Why coconuts? That's the first thing people ask," said engineering professor Walter Bradley, who is leading the research.

"We knew coconuts were abundant - about 50 billion grown a year. But 96 percent of those coconuts are grown by poor farmers, not big plantations. We wanted to figure out a way to make things better for them, to create a viable new market for them," Mr. Bradley said.

The farmers - an estimated 11 million around the world - make about $500 a year. Should the coconut car interiors gain traction, those incomes would triple, Mr. Bradley said.

Others already are pushing the enviro-automotive connection.

Johnson Controls, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer of auto interior components, will unveil a new line of "sustainable" seating at the 2009 North American International Auto Show next week; the seats are 100 percent recyclable and composed of "natural oil polyols."

Lotus, meanwhile, now offers the "Eco Elise," embellished with "ethically farmed" hemp. Kyoto University's "BamGoo," a single-seat electric car built from organic bamboo, weighs 130 pounds and travels 30 miles per battery charge.

But coconuts can hold their own in this competitive market, Mr. Bradley said. The "mechanical properties" of coconut fibers are as good or better than synthetic or polyester fibers. They also are less expensive and the stuff of the greenest dreams.

"They're better for the environment because the coconut husks would have otherwise been thrown away. Coconuts also do not burn well or emit toxic fumes, which is crucial in passing 10 safety-performance tests required for commercial applications," Mr. Bradley said.

The material must be able to withstand temperatures as high as 170 degrees Fahrenheit, or as low as minus 30 degrees, for example. The fibers can't fail at 95 percent humidity, either.

But so far, so good.

The researchers are working with a Texas company that supplies fiber composites to four major auto manufacturers; a 600-yard test roll of coconut-fiber car cloth is in the works, Mr. Bradley said.

Such creative repurposing is on the rise across the nation, particularly in the building industry.

"Blue-jean insulation," for example, is a must-have among green-conscious homeowners, along with cork floors and bamboo countertops. The gray-blue batting is created from fibers and lint left over at denim-manufacturing facilities.