Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Home-Grown Auto Parts Tall Thin Plant May Replace Fiberglass in Car Interiors

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Home-Grown Auto Parts Tall Thin Plant May Replace Fiberglass in Car Interiors

Article excerpt

Ah, the feeling of slipping into a new car!

The smell of the vinyl, the feel of the leather seats, the sleek look of that instrument panel reinforced with kenaf.

Kenaf!? OK, so maybe you've never heard of it. For years, kenaf advocates have tried to get paper companies to use the tall spindly plant for newsprint. Now they've shifted their attention to automakers. And for economic and environmental reasons, that attention may be well received. Automakers look set to begin using the natural fiber in their car interiors, starting with their 2002 models. If successful, they could jump-start a movement toward recyclable cars in the United States. "Basically, we are growing a new industry," says Chuck Taylor, chief operating officer of the kenaf subsidiary of Kafus Environmental Industries. In January, California-based Kafus signed an agreement with car- parts maker Visteon to develop kenaf-based parts for auto interiors. Visteon is a wholly owned enterprise of Ford Motor Co. but also sells parts to automakers around the world, including General Motors, Daimler-Chrysler, Volvo, Toyota, and Nissan. "My confidence is very high that we'll launch in {automakers'} '02 and '03 programs," says Don Vonk, strategic business unit director of interior systems for Visteon. Sources say Ford is considering using kenaf in its Sable, Mustang, and Crown Victoria models. Automakers think kenaf may have several advantages. By encasing strands of its bark in the plastic polypropylene, car-parts makers get a strong material that in some cases molds better, sets up faster, and resists shattering better than fiberglass parts. It is also lighter and sometimes cheaper to produce than other materials because it can be molded and finished in a single step. Kenaf is also environment-friendly, which is increasingly important to automakers worldwide. Kafus, the company that makes kenaf auto products, uses an automated process that causes less pollution than either fiberglass manufacturing or the labor-intensive method used to break down kenaf in Asia. It's also recyclable. That's especially important in Europe. Several countries there have set up initiatives where, in a few years, only 10 to 15 percent of a European car's original weight could end up in a landfill. …

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