One day soon the car you buy may be made partly out of coconuts, with a poor farmer thousands of miles away reaping great benefit.
If a plan developed by engineering students and their professor at Baylor University lives up to expectations, that farmer will triple his annual income of about $500.
It all started a few years ago when engineering professor Walter Bradley set out on a very specific search.
"I wanted to find an abundant, renewable resource that is grown exclusively in countries where the vast majority of people are poor and try to figure out if we can make that abundant resource have a much better market value," Bradley said.
That search eventually led him to the Philippines and, of course, to the coconut.
The coconut palm is ubiquitous throughout the tropical belt that runs around Earth's equator, and while many uses have been found for the nut the tree produces, as well as the husks that encase the nut's hard shell, they are of such meager commercial value these days that a typical coconut farmer in the Philippines, the world leader in coconut production, earns only about a dime for every coconut.
This is a particularly difficult time for coconut farmers because the market for coconut oil, once used extensively in such things as candies and popcorn, all but disappeared a few years ago amid fears that the high level of saturated fat in the oil is harmful to consumers.
More recent research out of Harvard and UC Berkeley, as well as other institutions, partly disputes that, suggesting that the saturated fat in tropical oils behaves much the same as vegetable oils when consumed by humans. Some research suggests it may actually be better, slightly increasing metabolism and HDL, the good cholesterol.
But the debate rages on, and the biggest loser is the coconut farmer.
"These people have really had a difficult time," Bradley said. "These farmers are dying on the vine around the world."
He hopes to see a very different future for those farmers, as well as the residents of numerous impoverished villages. He wants to see the value of coconuts increase, and he wants more of the processing done in villages, thus providing more jobs. And he wants to use every bit of the coconut, especially the husks that are now mainly treated as waste, which may in fact turn out to be the most valuable part.
The Baylor team has joined forces with a company near the Waco, Texas, campus that manufactures various types of fibrous products, including floor mats found in cars. The company has contracts with four major auto manufacturers.
Half the biomass of the husk consists of fibers so strong that they have already been used to make some consumer products, such as door mats and containers for potted plants, but Bradley thinks they have much greater potential. The fibers are strong and stiff, and they are difficult to burn and do not give off toxic gases.
That makes them ideally suited for automotive components, like trunk linings and door panels, Bradley said, and the Waco firm hopes to begin production as early as this summer after the safety of the product is certified.
"This is the first of what we hope will be a broad industry that will consume lots of coconut fiber and provide a better income for the people in the Philippines," he said.
Meanwhile, members of his team are conducting experiments to see what else they can wring out of the coconut. The outer shell is extremely tough, and it is "five times harder than the hardest hardwood," Bradley said. He's pretty excited about some possible applications there, but he said it's too early to talk about it.
Biofuel was an obvious early target, since coconut can be used as a direct substitute for diesel. But it takes 35 coconuts to make a gallon of coconut oil, so it's not economically feasible.
In addition to the fibers, the husk also contains dust, called pith, that could replace particle board in furniture and housing construction. Some particle board now in use contains chemicals that can be irritating to people with certain allergies.
The Baylor project isn't limited to the engineering department. Students in some classes are writing business plans tailored to six countries where coconuts are grown.
"I don't have to motivate them at all," Bradley said. "They aren't doing it just for credit. They understand that if they are successful in what they are doing they could impact the lives of a large number of people."
"This is not a hypothetical project," said Bradley.
The team is also working with companies and educators in the Philippines, and success will depend largely on how vigorously they pursue the project. Bradley has no intention to move there.
"Our goal is not to start an international conglomerate and become coconut kings," he said. "Our goal is to help a lot of villages get the maximum income from their coconuts."
That will require making the most out of every part of the coconut, from the pith to the meat. Automotive designers may not look to the drab coconut for artistic inspiration, however. Floor mats would be fine.