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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Coconut Cars

August 26, 2010

Each year, millions of coconuts are harvested for their milk or oil, leaving behind huge mounds of rotting husks. This creates a health problem—the husks collect water and provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests—and enormous amounts of waste. But, as Baylor University’s Walter Bradley has discovered, there also might be an environmental opportunity hidden in those piles.

Bradley, an engineering professor, has devised a way to transform the husks into an unlikely assortment of automobile parts, potentially reducing the car industry’s petroleum use and paving the way for a slew of coconut-based innovations.

Bradley hatched the idea during a trip to the Philippines, where he was investigating whether coconut oil would make good biofuel. (That turned out to be impractical; it takes about 37 coconuts to make one gallon of fuel.) When Bradley saw the discarded husks, it dawned on him that their strong, stiff fibers—which are naturally fire-resistant—would be perfect substitutes for auto parts that need to be durable and safe.

So, with colleagues at Whole Tree Inc., Bradley developed a process that combines coconut fibers with recycled polypropylene, creating a felt-like material that can be used in trunk liners, car ceilings, and dashboards. Since those parts are now made from petroleum-based polyester, switching to coconut fiber would reduce the amount of oil that goes into auto production.

What’s more, Bradley says, coconut fiber is about one-third cheaper than traditional materials. This makes carmakers more likely to embrace it and is also good news for coconut farmers in the developing world, who could add to their meager profits by selling the husks. And that might be only the beginning. Bradley believes the fibers could potentially be used in home insulation and roofing, underscoring the idea that, while coconuts are tough to crack, it’s well worth the effort. ❧

—Justin Matlick

image: ©Fernando Pereira

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