Elephant Grass

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In the future, parts of your car might be made from agricultural garbage.


Turning weeds into auto parts. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

In the future, parts of your car might be made from agricultural garbage. That's the goal of Nick Tucker, a research fellow at the University of Warwick in England.

He and his colleagues are trying to make car parts out of biodegradable plastic. Since the materials are expensive, they need a cheap filler. They turned to elephant grass, a tough tall grass that looks like bamboo.

The material we get from the farmer is what he or she has de-dusted in order to make horse beddings. It doesn't require any further treatment at that point, so we can add it straight into the plastic, and injection mold with it right away.

Dr. Tucker says plastics made from the elephant grass can be composted, like old food or coffee grounds. And British auto firms are showing interest, after some initial concern.

The engineers in the automotive industry wanted to be very confident that we wouldn't come out on a fine wet spring morning and find that the car was beginning to sprout.

Fortunately, that's not the case. If the momentum keeps up, Dr. Tucker says the new plastics could start production by the end of next year, and end up in cars by mid-decade.

For the American Association For The Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

Junking cars is an environmental headache. There's a lot of material that won't biodegrade, including the molded plastics for parts like wheel rims, moon roofs, and headlight covers. This Science Update explores how a cheap, bamboo-like plant could make these auto parts friendlier to the earth.

Previously, biodegradable plastics were found to be too weak for use in many car parts. Now, researchers from the University of Warwick are collaborating with a group of farmers to develop plastic car parts that will stand the test of time, yet still biodegrade upon disposal. The group has discovered that they can increase the strength of biodegradable plastic by adding short lengths of Elephant Grass (Miscanthus), a bamboo-like cane that grows up to 3m tall. Farmers have long recognized the value of Elephant Grass, which can be used for animal bedding, thatching, and even as a 'biomass' fuel for power generation. As an added benefit, the environmentally friendly crop is particularly hardy, requires little or no pesticide or fertilizer, and can produce very high yields.

Researchers have already demonstrated that Elephant Grass can be used as a structural filler in car parts such as wheel trims. These sturdy parts will not degrade during the life of the vehicle, but can be forced into biodegrading if composted at the end of the vehicle's life. A welcome development for car manufacturers, who in the future will be called upon to find environmentally sound methods for disposing of vehicles.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. How are researchers hoping to use Elephant Grass (Miscanthus)?
  2. Why use Miscanthus?
  3. What are the environmental benefits of supplementing biodegradable plastics with Miscanthus? What are the economic benefits?

For Educators

For more on bioenergy, go to Bioenergy Basics from the Renewable Energy Policy Project.

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