In the Future, Your Car May Be Made of Mushrooms

In the Future, Your Car May Be Made of Mushrooms

In the future, mushrooms may be as common in cars as they are on pizza.

Believe it or not, scientists who are trying to find more sustainable ways to build car parts believe the answers may be found in things such as mushroom roots.

The newest episode of the PBS series "Nova," which airs Wednesday, focuses on the new discoveries that scientists such as Deborah Mielewski, the technical leader of plastics research at Ford Motor Co., are working on to reduce the carbon tire track that autos leave on the environment.

New York Times reporter David Pogue says that in order to make cars more sustainable, scientists are looking for clues in mushroom roots and chicken feathers.

For instance, Mielewski says Ford has been working to find a way to reduce the use of petroleum plastics since 2000, and the work is finally paying off big.

"Green plastics used to be unpopular," Mielewski admitted. "We were used to getting the first meeting with people, but we'd never get invited back. People don't like to move to new materials."

However, the cost of petroleum rose at the same time as interest in protecting the environment, and Ford decided to jump on the green trend with some success.

Currently, as much as 10 percent of car parts that are typically made from petroleum plastics can now be made from soy-based polyurethane foams or "bioplastic."

In fact, the 2011 Ford Fiesta uses bioplastic not only in soft foam seats but also for hard plastic surfaces like the dashboard.

New York Times science writer David Pogue, who is hosting the show, drove one of the Fiestas with foam made from soy beans and admits that he never would have noticed if Mielewski hadn't spilled the beans herself.

"There is no way anyone can tell," Pogue told AOL News. "They are identical in springiness and they are wrapped in vinyl like other car seats."

Mielewski said that the current soy-based polyurethane foam used in the Fiesta had to match up with all the specs that the old foam did, but she sees a day when it will actually be better than, not equal to, the petroleum-based foam.

"We are formulating a soy-based foam that will be more like what is used in Tempur-Pedic mattresses and, thus, more comfortable," she said.

Although the soy-based foam is considered green, Mielewski admits it still isn't biodegradable.

"It will not biodegrade, but it takes less energy to make, and while the soy is growing it is taking in CO2 and that helps the environment."

Green plastics are a growing part of the car market, and Mielewski says it may be possible to actually grow car parts.

She says scientists at Ford are experimenting by mixing some mushroom roots together with other plant matter, like wheat straw, and putting the mixture into a mold shaped like a car part.

They close the mold, and the mushroom roots grow because they're feeding on the plant matter.
After about a week, it's filled the mold, they take it out, and it's in the shape of a car part.

Just cover it with a little bioplastic and it's ready to go.

The mushroom car parts are a ways off from being introduced into cars, but Pogue believes they will not only change how parts are manufactured, but also style as well.

"When you make hard plastics out of plants, they tend to resemble nature," he said. "The mushroom parts have flecks of mushroom in them -- you can see the bits. It's like wood grain. No piece looks the same."

But if the car parts of the future are rooted in mushroom roots, the future of fuel may be riding on chicken feathers.

Pogue says Delaware-based scientist Richard Wool has discovered that when feathers are cooked at just the right temperature, they can turn into high-tech hydrogen storage devices.

Although hydrogen is considered a zero-emission fuel, using it to power cars is difficult because it's a gas that likes to be free.

"It likes to occupy a lot of space," Wool told Pogue. "To compress it into a small space like the size of your gas tank -- you know, 20 gallons -- requires enormous pressure."

That's why many hydrogen-powered vehicles have tanks that are almost twice the size of the car.

However, chicken feathers act like sponges to draw the hydrogen gas closer, and that drops the pressure in the tank. That means if the carbonized black chicken fiber is stuffed into an engine, enough hydrogen could fit into a normal-sized gas tank to allow a 300-mile car trip.

Any kind of bird feather has the same effect, but Wool is high on chicken feathers since they would provide a use for the 6 billion pounds of feathers currently thrown away.

Being able to make hydrogen-powered vehicles work for the price of chicken feed sounds good, but Pogue admits there will still be a problem with making hydrogen vehicles the norm.

"It's a chicken-and-egg thing," he said. "There aren't enough fueling stations because there aren't enough cars, and there aren't enough cars because there aren't enough fueling stations."

Still, Pogue, who spent the last 18 months working on "Making Stuff," a four-part series that includes the Wednesday episode, "Making Stuff: Cleaner," has come away with a new respect for the greatest inventor of all: Mother Nature.

"Scientists spend years trying to find solutions and, inevitably, the solution is something that's already been done by nature."

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