WOOSTER, Ohio - The next-generation automobile could be built and fueled almost exclusively from materials produced down on the farm. And the Buckeye state could be at the forefront of such innovation.

The vision of an "Agri-Car," whose components would be derived in large part from bio-renewable resources and which would run on environmentally friendly non-fossil fuels, has begun to take shape in northeast Ohio.

The concept was initially conceived by Seeds of Opportunity, a Wooster-area group of business and other community leaders concerned about economic development prospects for the region. Now, Ohio State University's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development and the University of Akron's Goodyear Polymer Center have joined in conversations to explore a potential research partnership.

"Agriculture and polymers represent Ohio's two largest business sectors," OARDC Director Steve Slack said. "It makes sense for us to explore initiatives that leverage these strengths. Agri-Car is an exciting concept that has this capability."

Other groups that have expressed interest in exploring this concept are Ohio State's Center for Automotive Research (CAR), Tsinghua University in Beijing, and China's Geely Automotive Group.

The idea is to create a diverse working group to leverage resources, knowledge and ongoing research projects that could help assemble the pieces required to turn the Agri-Car concept into a circulating reality. Such interaction, Slack said, is crucial to see beyond research and industry boundaries and realize that agriculture, biotechnology, polymers and the automotive world indeed have much to offer to each other.

"We are talking about a mid-size, lighter, safe, efficient, inexpensive car that would be 90 percent biodegradable," said Seeds of Opportunity chairman Harry Featherstone, retired CEO of worldwide pneumatic telescoping masts and lighting manufacturer Will-Burt Co., and former operations manager and head of materials for top U.S. automakers Ford and GM.

"Development of this vehicle would not only be significant for the value of the car itself, and what it would mean to our societies and the world, but also for the progress and innovation sure to be realized in the development of products and processes necessary to produce the car."

By using the right combination of bio-based materials, Featherstone explained, the Agri-Car could be approximately 1,000 pounds lighter that a vehicle its size -- contributing to a fuel efficiency of at least 70-80 mpg.

Possible components would include malleable carbon or bio-polymer for the body; bio-polymers, advanced sensors and displays for the dash; new carbon materials for the drive train; polymers and fabrics derived from renewable feedstocks for the interior and trim; alternative natural sources of rubber for the tires; and crops and other biomass for lubricants and fuel, including ethanol and methane.

Slack said OARDC currently has research programs and projects that could provide some of the feedstocks and energy sources the Agri-Car would need. Among them:

  • The Ohio BioProducts Innovation Center (OBIC): Established through an $11.5 million Third Frontier award, OBIC is linking agricultural technologies with chemical-conversion and advanced-materials technologies to create specialty industrial compounds like plastics, paints, lubricants and solvents from crops such as soybeans and corn.

  • The Biomass-to-Energy Project: Also the recipient of a Third Frontier award, this project involves taking animal manure, food-processing leftovers, crops and other biomass resources and converting them to clean, renewable energy. This research brings together two different technologies - biodigesters, which turn waste into biogas, and fuel cells, which can use biogas and even vegetable oils to generate energy.

  • Natural Rubber Research: This study aims to develop a species of dandelion from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan as an American-grown source of natural rubber.

  • Additional resources OARDC brings to the table include the Food and Agricultural Technology Commercialization and Economic Development Program (ATECH) and the proposed BioHio Research Park, which is expected to host startup companies partnering university research and entrepreneurial efforts.

    OARDC is the research arm of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

    SOURCE: Ohio State University news release.