Auto Parts from Maple Leaves

Hot on Justin's post about turning maple syrup into bioplastic, we learn about biochemist Frederic Acer in Espanola, Ontario, who is trying to make use of one of Canada's greatest resources: Maple leaves. "Year after year, I'd rake up tonnes and tonnes of maple leaves and just place them in a compost pile, I kept thinking that there had to be some way of using the complex chemicals formed in maple leaves to produce a product more useful than a mountain of mulch."

Peter Kenter of the Post continues: Acer's initial research involved studying the intricate chemical processes of different types of maple leaves found in the area. "Sugar maple leaves, for example, contain a variety of phenolic compounds, such as myricetin, querecetin and cyanidin," he says. "By grinding leaves to a fine grained product, then adding simple aldehydes, we create phenolic resins that can be used to bind the leaf particles into a material that's as hard as iron but much more flexible. Think about a space-aged version of Bakelite, the product once used to make plastic casings for household appliances."

A powerful attraction of the technology is that you can change the colour of the panel depending on the time of year you harvest the leaves.

"The colours of the leaves are the result of a complex series of chemical reactions involving photosynthesis and leaf sugar content," he says. "By carefully monitoring chlorophyll, carotene and anthocyanins -- the primary chemicals that affect leaf colour -- we can harvest leaves at just the right time, effectively creating custom colours for clients."

Many customers consider themselves "green" consumers already, says Acer, so they're content to order car bodies that follow the seasonal spectrum. Customers who order a green auto body receive their orders earlier in the year. Brown fall leaves can be harvested and pigmented using natural dyes to create blues and purples. "We can create rich vibrant colours, but consumers looking for an approximation of metal flake will probably be disappointed in what we can achieve," says Acer.

The holy grail of building auto bodies from leaves has, however, eluded him so far. "If we could build the body parts so that the chemicals in the leaves were still active, we could conceivably develop an auto body that would actually change colour with the seasons, depending on the amount of sunlight reaching the car's surface," he says.

"Of course, you'd have to live with dark brown through the winter months -- but brown tends to hide the type of buildup we get from driving through urban environments during the winter. It would certainly cut down on car washes." ::National Post

Tags: Bioplastics | Canada