Trabant: Yesterday’s Lemon Unlikely Candidate for Biomobile of the Future

Raise your hand if you ever heard of the Trabant. No fair Googling. OK, so you did anyway, and you now know that it was the world’s first mass-produced automobile made from bio-sustainable and recycled materials – mostly duroplast, a plastic resin composed of wool or cotton fiber – much of it from industrial waste. The vehicle was compact, lightweight, durable and exactly 50 years ahead of its time when the first one rolled off a 1958 assembly line in Communist East Germany.

Time magazine voted it one of the worst cars ever made, with its two-cycle engine that had no power or amenities and its unbelievably smoky exhaust system and legendary mechanical unreliability. Thousands of East Germans agreed – famously driving (or pushing) their Trabants to the West after the fall of the Wall, where they promptly abandoned them along the roadsides.

This was an interesting precursor to today’s catastrophic woes in the auto industry, which is struggling for survival in Detroit and guzzling gas on all continents! Hoards of SUVs and large, inefficient vehicles have become the Trabants of today – just sitting there, abandoned, mostly on dealers’ lots in the biggest sales slump in decades.

Oddly enough, there may be a light in this dark tunnel – also provided by the now mythical Trabant. Call it bioplastics, biofoams, bio-replacements, or “bio-anything”, but hundreds, probably thousands, of companies are now involved in the research and manufacture of auto parts made from similarly sustainable, renewable sources.

The headlines are full of research for more cost-effective biofuels, and that enormous field continues to grow on a staggering scale – with new breakthroughs coming on a near weekly basis. This will continue, but it is being joined by something very “Trabantesque.”

Last week, in a stunning fashion, Toyota revealed a prototype vehicle whose body parts are made from a bioplastic derived from reconstituted seaweed. And in December, the Ford Motor Co. and Lear Corp. were honored by the Society of Plastic Engineers for their innovative uses of soy-based foam in car seats – which Ford later announced would be available in one million of its 2009 vehicles.

Because Ford and Toyota are two of the world’s largest automakers, these are not small stories. A deluge of similar developments are in the bio-pipeline, and the months ahead will be full of similar announcements. Research and commercial development in the related industries have become too voluminous to list.

Much of it is in the early stages, like a research project at Baylor University using coconut fibers to replace synthetic and polyester fibers, or a similar one at Clemson studying the use of durable bioplastics made from corn, or another study by the Agricultural Research Service at Peoria, IL, on the use of soy flour as a “green” filler for auto tires or other natural rubber products.

Some of the new research has moved to the practical level. An example is the formation of the Ontario BioAuto Council, which provides government funding and encouragement to firms in that Canadian province to replace petro materials with farm crops in the manufacture of auto parts. At least three companies have emerged as a result, making interior trim, head restraint coverings and ceilings from crops like soybeans and castor.

The top makers of petro-plastics also are recognizing the trend to bioplastics. DuPont was a leader in 2006 with its first biomaterials factory, which sold more than $100 million last year including its featured bioplastic Sorona. Archer Daniels Midland has joint-ventured with a Massachusetts firm, Metabolix, to make Mirel bioplastics, which will start production in 2009 at an Iowa facility. Cargill’s NatureWorks unit hopes to ship 140,000 metric tons of its new bio-polymer Ingeo this year. Others in the mix are Novomer and Cereplast, a couple of startups that are making plastics from potatoes, soy, wheat, and tapioca. And around the globe, there are such firms as Braskem in Brazil, spending $300 million on a plant to make a sugarcane-based product, and Toray Industries of Japan, doing the same with fermented plant starches and sugars.

Many of the early products from bioplastics have been visible to consumers for several years in grocery sacks, cups and other disposable products, and now in more durable goods such as cell phone cases and drinking bottles.

The branching into auto parts is just beginning, but its economic result should be enormous. The total global renewable and bioproducts industry is expected to exceed $125 billion in revenues by the year 2010, barring any further collapse in the economy.

Yes, we’ve come a long way from the Trabant. And it sure took long enough to get here, didn’t it?

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