New cars (almost) good enough to eat

Care for a little mayonnaise with that car door?

Those who expect to see wheat and soy in their sandwiches and breakfast cereal may be surprised to discover these same edible ingredients are starting to show up in car parts.

Not just content with more efficient engines and nifty computers that can parallel-park a car by itself (although that’s pretty cool, too), today’s automakers are looking to edible bits you might normally expect at the kitchen table to reduce weight using renewable ingredients.

Sometimes-edible biomaterials have recently shown up in car doors to reinforce the plastic, plastic cup holders and arm rests, and as insulation in stereo equipment.

With only a little stretch, serving car parts – or, rather, ingredients that go into parts – for lunch was exactly the point at Ottawa’s Atelier restaurant Tuesday, when representatives of Ford Motor Co. of Canada dropped by for their latest of nine “green tour” whistle stops across Canada to promote the company’s more environmentally friendly approach.

Among them is plastic resin reinforced with wheat straw developed at the University of Waterloo, part of the Ontario BioCar Initiative, that Ford is using in some moulded interior parts. The first year it appeared in the 2010 Ford Flex model, plastic with 20-per-cent straw content cut the use of petroleum by 20,000 pounds.

Researchers are also looking at sugar from corn, sugarbeets, sugarcane and other plants to make plastic, at coconut fibre to reinforce what plastic they do make, and at soybeans in the manufacture of foam seats that traditionally relied on petrochemicals.

Atelier owner Marc Lepine’s kitchen seemed well suited to the task of illustrating the parts-you-can-eat theme as he, more than any other chef in the nation’s capital, has made it his mission to deconstruct and reassemble food in whimsical if not playful ways. If a chef like Lepine can routinely turn root vegetables into powder, desserts into gelatinous sheets, and olive oil into ice cream, then how hard could it be to serve foam padding in a car seat? Or, at least, the soy that can be used to make padding in a car seat.

As Morley Safer once said, with enough garlic you can eat The New York Times.

In this case, Lepine served shrimp with gelled soy, apples and garden sorrel to illustrate the automaker’s use of soy-based polyurethane foams in cushions, seat backs and headliners in the Focus and other Ford models.

The biggest challenge in developing soy-based polyurethane foam was the seats tended to be too soft, too spongy, and they smelled (not surprisingly) like soybean oil. People do not want to smell french fries every time they drive down the Queensway, so Ford had to modify the formula once it mastered the spongy issue to pass the all-important odour test.

Researchers are now looking at all plastics, rubber, foam, film and fabric to develop more bio-based materials, many from the farm that are useful, durable and cost-effective – all while decreasing reliance on petroleum.

Atelier also served seared scallop with coconut foam, bacon, fennel and celery as a nod to the automaker’s use of coconut fibre in moulded plastics. Third course was sous vide bison tenderloin with truffle mayonnaise, gouda panisse, corn and wheat “risotto” to reinforce the company’s use of corn in fuel, plastic, and wheat straw to strengthen plastic parts.

The company is now researching ways to use Russian giant dandelions to produce rubber. Hence, the Atelier dessert of dandelion honey cake with toasted hay-infused ice cream.

Plastics currently make up about 10 per cent of a vehicle, ranging from sight-unseen parts such as impact shields and manifolds to components seen every day like doors and instrument panels. Some plastics contain heavy fibreglass fillers added for strength, which can be replaced with soy, hemp, flax and other farmed materials.

Depending on the part, natural fibres can reduce weight by 30 per cent.

“Of course, we’re not suggesting you have a bowl of car foam for breakfast,” laughs Caroline Hughes, director of government relations at Ford Canada.

“What this meal does is demonstrate you can have a broader perspective when it comes to the types of materials we use to make our cars. We thought it would be a fun way to highlight the renewable resources we’re able to integrate into a car.”

Even as early as the 1930s, she says, company founder Henry Ford was using soybeans to reduce the cost of plastic knobs. “So, while ethanol from corn is a common additive in gasoline, we’re going beyond that by using farm-grown products in other ways,” Hughes says.

“And by using wheat straw to reinforce and reduce the weight of plastics, we’re getting more use from a crop by using parts of the plant that would otherwise be waste.”

Lepine says he already uses ingredients like soy, wheat and corn in his culinary creations. “When they approached me about this, I liked the idea of basing our menu around ingredients they use in production.”

“As you know, at Atelier we like playing with our food.”