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Henry’s Ford’s Soybean Car

3 May

Henry Ford is famous for ushering in the modern, fast-paced age of the horseless carriage.  But he was always attached to the farming life. Which was ironic, since he grew up on a farm but hated and avoided actual farm work.

Anyhow, throughout his life Ford went out of his way to champion the interests of American farmers.  For example, in the early 1940s Ford built a prototype car with a body consisting of plastic panels made from soybeans.

Ford was fascinated by soybeans and was probably one of the first Americans to regularly eat soy burgers and drink soy milk.

Whatever Ford’s plans may have been for mass producing a soybean car, they were quashed by WWII, when auto factories were commandeered to make munitions.

Purdue Visit Part II

2 Mar

I went to Purdue again last week, on Feb. 23, to meet with people who are, across the board, about a million times smarter than me. I’ll say this about being a science writer: it’s interesting and often humbling to sit across from and talk with someone whose intellectual wattage surpasses your own. Not that telling stories doesn’t require intelligence … but it’s not quite the same thing.

Anyhow, I met with two scientists–agricultural economist Wallace Tyner and fluid power specialist Monika Ivantysynova

A few highlights …

A lot, most, of the people I talk to who are now tenured professors working on energy came of age during the late 70s–the last time energy was a big deal like it is today. (Energy is always important, of course, but the average person only takes notice when there’s an “energy crisis,” so-called.) Wallace Tyner is no different. Wallace Tyner actually is a product of the 60s. After getting an undergrad degree in chemistry, he joined the Peace Corps and ended up in India raising chickens. But Tyner wasn’t really a chicken farmer–he was a scientist at heart, and before long he began measuring the chemical composition of chicken feed, trying to figure out how to make it more nutritious.

After the Corps, Tyner ended up at the U of Maryland studying economics, spent time back in India studying the leasing of oil and gas resources for his Ph.D., then eventually got a job at Purdue as an energy economist. But when oil dropped to $4/barrel by the mid 80s, Tyner turned to development and ended up spending three years in Morocco working on agricultural policy and trade.

Now, though, since 2004, since energy is once again hot, Tyner is back to energy.We talked about corn ethanol, which by now is a fairly well known story. His current work focuses on the economics of cellulosic biofuels. Tyner seems fairly upbeat about the prospects for cellulose. He recently got a $1 million grant to study how biofuels consume water.

Monika Ivantysynova is a smart woman. So smart, in fact, that I barely understood what she was telling me about her work on hydraulic power systems in large vehicles like earth movers. I got this gist, though … I think. Hydraulics are actually pretty simple. It basically involves using pressurized liquid–typically oil–to move things. The breaks in most cars use hydraulics. Most construction machinery uses hydraulics to raise and lower arms and scoops. The benefit of hydraulics is that it’s a very efficient way of moving things around. It also allows for precise control over a machine’s moving parts. Or something like that. Anyhow, Ivantysynova and her colleagues and grad students are working toward developing hydraulic systems for passenger cars.  Here’s an explanation I found online of how such a system works:

“Hydraulic hybrids operate basically the same way as gasoline-electric hybrids, but they use a motor-pump instead of an electric motor-generator—and an accumulator rather than the battery pack. An accumulator is essentially a pressure tank that stores compressed gas or liquid. When the driver slows down or brakes, the pump forces the hydraulic fluid out of a low-pressure tank into a twin high-pressure tank. To accelerate, the fluid is forced back to the low-pressure tank past the pump/motor, which applies torque to the wheels. The hydraulic regenerative braking system, which can put as much as 80 percent of the braking energy back to the wheel, is more efficient than regen braking in current hybrid cars.” Source:

Hybrid-hydraulic systems are evidently already out there, at least in prototypes. Since the systems relied on frequent stopping and starting, hydraulics make the most sense for delivery trucks, garbage trucks, etc. The reason scientists and auto companies are interested in developing hydraulic systems for passenger cars is because it helps save on fuel consumption and cuts down on emissions.

I’ll be honest–I still don’t quite understand this, but it’s worth learning more about.

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