Home-grown auto parts

Tall thin plant may replace fiberglass in car interiors

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.


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. Everything else, from batteries to wheels, would need recycling or incineration.

That's one reason European automakers have moved aggressively into natural-fiber interiors. According to a recent study by Robert Eller, an Akron-based consultant, natural fibers and other wood-like substances account for roughly half of the material used inside European cars.

Kafus and Visteon believe their one-step kenaf process can compete against other natural fibers European carmakers currently use, such as flax, jute, and hemp (the industrial kind, not the type used to make marijuana).

Already, Visteon has won the contract to replace the kenaf used in the interior door panels of Ford's Mondeo (the European version of the Ford Contour) with its own cheaper, one-step kenaf.

The big prize remains North America, which uses natural fibers in only 15 percent of its car interiors. If Kafus and Visteon can persuade US manufacturers to replace fiberglass with their kenaf composite, they'll hit the jackpot.

Yet big challenges remain. Car-parts sales alone won't support the 20,000 acres Kafus hopes to grow here in south Texas. The process only uses the bark of the 14-foot, tree-looking plant. So the company is also chopping up the plant's woody inner core to create everything from kitty litter to absorbent powder for industrial spills.

Kenaf also faces competition from another fast-rising car-part material: injection-molded plastic.

"There's sort of a fad toward the rather aggressive use of injection molding," says Mr. Eller, the consultant, who predicts it will make further inroads.

Still, he doesn't rule out success for kenaf. "The auto business grows in quantum leaps," he says. "If you lose an application, you lose big. If you gain an application, you win big."

"We believe the automotive industry is going to change to a kenaf base," adds Mike McCabe, Kafus's president and chief executive officer.

If he's right, the company may start to grow like a weed by growing car parts in south Texas.

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