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Toyota engineers have developed a world first for the next-generation Prius hybrid car - plastic components made from plants you could grow in your backyard.
Known as ecological plastic, the plant-based foam and injection-moulded parts are found in several locations throughout the new Prius, including the scuff plates, deck trim and seat cushions.
The plant-based plastics replace conventional plastics which are made using petro-chemicals, cutting CO2 emissions over the life of the product (from manufacture to disposal) and helping to reduce petroleum use.
Ecological plastic emits less CO2 during a product's lifecycle because most of the CO2 emitted at disposal was originally captured during photosynthesis while the plant was growing.
Toyota plans to increase the use of plant-derived ecological plastic in future vehicles.
While Toyota's technology to produce ecological plastic from the cellulose in wood or grass is new, the plants being utilised are ancient.
The two principal crops, kenaf and ramie, are thousands of years old, dating from the earliest days of human society.
Kenaf is a member of the hibiscus family and related to cotton and okra. Ramie (commonly known as China grass) is one of the strongest natural fibres, similar to flax in absorbency and density.
This year is particularly significant for Toyota's breakthrough with plant-based eco-plastics because 2009 is the United Nations' International Year of Natural Fibres, which covers kenaf and ramie.
Other interior components in the next-generation Prius are made from the latest Toyota-developed super olefin polymer, which has excellent recoverability and does not deteriorate even after repeated recycling.
Toyota has expanded the use of materials that are free of chlorine and bromine, while the use of PVC resin is a fraction of that used in a conventional car. Recycled sound-proofing material has also been used.
The introduction of ecological plastic in Prius follows the display at the recent Melbourne International Motor Show of the futuristic 1/X (one-exth) hybrid concept car that could eventually be made entirely from plant-based material, such as seaweed.
The new Prius, powered by an efficient Atkinson-cycle 1.8-litre four-cylinder petrol engine and a 60-Watt electric motor, will use just 3.9 litres of petrol to travel 100km. This is based on the European test cycle, which is close to the Australian standard.
Further reducing the environmental footprint of the new Prius, Toyota uses solar panels at its Tsutsumi manufacturing plant in central Japan to produce some of its own electricity - approximately enough to power 500 homes.
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