Driving on grass

Researchers at the University of Warwick’s Warwick Manufacturing Group are collaborating with a group of Elephant Grass farmers to use Elephant Grass to produce biodegradable plastic car parts.

Elephant grass, or Miscanthus, is a hardy perennial grass producing high yields of bamboo-like cane up to 3m tall. It is also said to be an environmentally friendly crop, requiring little or no pesticide or fertiliser.

Farmers already grow it for use in animal bedding, and thatching, and as a ‘biomass’ fuel for power generation.

The University of Warwick researchers are working with a group of twenty West Country farmers who grow Miscanthus and who have established a Company – Biomass Industrial Crops Limited (Bical) to exploit the plant’s potential.

Bical has already grown to be a multi-national company with interests in the United States, the Caribbean and Europe. The Warwick Manufacturing Group researchers Dr Nick Tucker and Mr. Mark Johnson are working with Bical to develop innovative uses for the Miscanthus that will give even greater commercial returns.

The researchers already have a number of projects underway.

One of these is to exploit Miscanthus to make biodegradable plastic car parts. The group says that car manufacturers will increasingly be called on not just to make and sell cars, but to have a strategy in place to environmentally dispose of vehicles at the end of their life.

The researchers are said to have already demonstrated that they can use Miscanthus as a biodegradable structural filler in plastic car parts such as wheel trims. Short lengths of the elephant grass are used to give strength to biodegradable plastics that were previously too weak to be used in many car parts.

The plastic car parts developed in this way will not degrade during the life of a vehicle but can be pushed into biodegrading if they are composted at the end of the vehicle’s life.

The researchers are also developing techniques to use Miscanthus in board products, paper pulps, compressed fuel briquettes, garden candles and even soaps and hand cleaners.