The Rise of the Organic Machines

By Sam Boni

09.15.2008

Recent reports told about Lotus displaying an eco-friendly car at the London auto show. Yes, Lotus of racing and engineering fame has done the Eco-Elise with natural materials.

Organic cars? Do these environmentalists not shy away from anything? Hold on – it’s not just the tree huggers any longer, it’s the ‘bean counters’ getting on the bandwagon now. Green cars produce black numbers on profit & loss sheets – far too much red ink has flooded into the Detroit River of late.

Rewind to just short of one hundred years ago.

“The use of Vegetable oils for engines [now called Bio Diesel] may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as Petroleum and Coal tar products of the present time”; so said Rudolf Diesel in 1912.

And Henry Ford proclaimed in 1934: “I foresee the time when industry shall no longer denude the forests which require generations to mature, nor use up the mines which were ages in the making, but shall draw its raw material largely from the annual products of the fields. I am convinced that we shall be able to get out of the yearly crops most of the basic materials which we now get from forest and mine. We shall grow annually many if not most of the substances needed in manufacturing.”

He continued: “When that day comes, and it is surely on the way, the farmer will not lack a market and the worker will not lack a job. More people will live in the country. The present unnatural condition will be naturally balanced again. Chemistry will reunite agriculture and industry. They were allowed to get too far apart and the world has suffered by the separation.”

And Gandhi lamented “The Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”. Could he have been referring to the so-called oil barons?

Was it Albert Einstein who said “Ve get too soon old and too late schmart”?

Lotus has for many years offered new ideas and products to carmakers around the world. Until recently, these have been mostly hi-tech, cutting edge innovations.

The new state of the art “comes naturally” from Lotus and other engineering development firms. To repeat, the Hethel company displayed a changed production version of their Elise sportscar at the British Motor Show in July 2008. The ‘Eco Elise’ features hemp, eco-wool and sisal for interior
trim and for body panels. Not only is the Eco version 32 kg (70.5 lbs) lighter than the standard production model, it is also painted with water-soluble paint.

And not only is the car that much ‘greener’, Lotus has also cleaned up the production process by a considerable margin. Compared to the previous year, use of electricity is down by 14%, use of natural gas is 30% lower, water consumption fell by 11% and 57% of production waste materials are now recycled.

These figures are drastic, but have to be considered accurate, since Lotus offers the technology to other manufacturers.

The hemp from local farms cuts down on transportation cost, the wool from nearby sheep herds practically walks to the production plant and the new, flexible photo-voltaic (solar) panels sewn into the Eco Elise’s organic convertible roof allows a smaller alternator to keep the battery charged.

The hemp already absorbs CO2 while it is growing in the fields, and the resin used to bind it into body panels is of a new biodegradable type.

Lotus has developed the water-based paint system with Du Pont; for the first time, this includes primer, color coat and lacquer. Also a first is the hand-spray application of the process in a top grade production quality. Lotus, Porsche, McLaren and other small specialty car companies seem to attract so much engineering talent that more innovations are originating at these firms than at the large corporations.

Lotus is not trying to reinvent the wheel, but even those are no longer of metal alloy but of organic reinforced fibers on the Eco model. And we thought magnesium rims were light.

Finally now, Ford again uses -after three quarters of a century- natural fibers in the interior of some cars, among them the new Mustang; organic fibers from Soy and other plants, instead of petroleum derived materials. You may recall that Henry Ford used Hemp -where did people go wrong with this stuff?- as lining for the interior and side panels of the Model T. The impact strength of these was multiple times higher than steel alone. The Model-T engine was also prepared to run on Hemp fuel [we call it ethanol], which grew on Ford farms.

Bio engineers estimate that Hemp could and would be used to produce more than 50,000 products if it were legal in America at this time of need.

Are we too late in getting smart?

Finally now, clever cars are being built, named smart and iQ, which require less material to produce and less fuel to run. Crude oil has eased from trading at $147.00 a barrel, but many indications are that it will return and climb even beyond that.

It is equally scary that the market value of major automakers’ shares has dropped below ten dollars each because the companies [also] produce large SUVs, pickups and vans. The stock price of another firm, mass-producing small, fuel efficient cars, have been near and above $200.00 for the last two years (Are these new-age, greedy investors also the kind of people Gandhi was bemoaning?)

Other automakers have started to accelerate the ‘organic bandwagon’: Prof. Dr. Herbert Kohler, Vice President Vehicle and Powertrain, Group Research and Advanced Engineering and Chief Environmental Officer of Daimler AG said: “Bio products are an integral part of our roadmap towards sustainable
mobility.”

Dr. Peter Reimers, General Manager of European Chemicals added: “By diversifying the world’s material and energy supplies, we could increase global security and create for many nations the ability to produce products from local sources.”

Are we getting closer again to realizing Henry Ford’s vision of the future?

As one auto executive observed, “A biological car is not just around the corner, but the concept is most definitely on the road again. Natural products are competing with petroleum products in a small part of the automotive market, and dozens if not hundreds of new products may soon be entering the market. And this time we are not talking about a single demonstration car constructed by one visionary but about a number of commercially viable companies producing bio-based parts for use in millions of cars. Ford’s dream may yet see the light of day, although by way of a path he probably never imagined.”

COPYRIGHT Autosavant – All Rights Reserved

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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