Researchers at Baylor University have been working on designing multiple low-cost products that can be derived from coconuts in poor coastal regions, where the fruit grows in abundance and is a renewable resource. The group, led by Dr. Walter Bradley, Distinguished Professor of Engineering, has found an innovative way to use coconut husks in automotive interiors.
They are are using coconut fibers in place of currently used synthetic fibers to make compression-molded composites for automobile parts such as bed liners, floorboards, sun visors and inside door covers. The idea for new uses of the coconut grew out of a desire to aid poor coconut farmers in coastal regions in countries such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Ghana and Sri Lanka. In most developing countries, the coconut husk is basically a throwaway material.
The goal of the researchers is to try to triple the annual income of 10 million poor coconut farmers around the world by developing a large market for items that can be made from coconuts. They have discovered that coconut husks fibers have good mechanical properties for composites used by many consumer-oriented companies. Bradley’s team has partnered with Hobbs Bonded Fibers, which indirectly car parts to four major automotive companies, as well as other manufacturers. The researchers still have to do the required certifications to support their claims and show the automotive companies that coconut products would perform as well, or better than the materials they are currently using. They are hopeful they will pass the rigorous certifications since coconuts do not burn easily nor do their emit toxic fumes. Automakers, including Toyota Motor Corporation and Mazda Motor Corporation have also been experimenting with using bio-plastic to make a range of car parts.
The composites are eco-friendly and that makes them a very attractive alternative. They would be cheaper than the petroleum-based fibers now being used. The automobile would be less expensive to produce using the coconut parts, with the savings ultimately being passed on to the purchaser. The main thrust behind this research, is to develop technologies and a business model that will not only make a profit, but make a difference in the lives of people most in need, all while being good stewards of the planet.
The project has garnered attention from the Discovery Channel, MotorTrend magazine and the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, which named this ambitious undertaking one of three winners of the 2008 Bosscher Hammond awards. The prizes are given to works that “encourage the integration of faith, learning, and practice and demonstrate how the academic disciplines and professions can contribute to human flourishing.”