Sometime in the mid-1990s, when Katrina Cornish was living in California and working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she saw a load of freshly picked tomatoes in a hopper being transported from a farm on the back of a truck.
Cornish, who has a doctorate in plant biology from the University of Birmingham in England, didn't view that load of tomatoes as most people would. She wondered instead about the tomatoes on the bottom of the container and realized that the skins would have to be pretty tough to handle that much stress.
Flash forward nearly a quarter-century. Cornish is now a professor at Ohio State University and an international authority on alternative natural rubber production, properties and products, as well as rubber biosynthesis. She never forgot those tomatoes, and because of her pioneering research, it's very possible that tomato skins could end up in your next car.
Tomato skins could replace a portion of the environmentally dirty carbon black found in the rubber used in suspension bushings, motor mounts, tires, hoses and elsewhere on the car.
"Tomatoes grown for food processing have been bred to be the same size, pretty much," said Cornish. "And it just struck me that they also must have really tough peels because the one at the bottom isn't getting squashed by the 500 sitting on its head. Well, what sort of properties do you want in a reinforcing filler? You want something that's really tough and strong. So that's why I looked at the tomato peel."
Also under study for auto industry application? Eggshells.
Eggshells also could replace a portion of carbon black. Cornish asked businesses to send garbage bags of their industrial waste to her lab. Sifting through that, she discovered that eggshells ground into a fine powder also might work as a reinforcing agent in carbon black.
OSU researchers, working with colleagues at supplier Tenneco and at least one major automaker, are testing the tomato peels and eggshells in rubber components for auto parts.
If they end up in car parts, it won't be the first time something such as this has happened. Cashew husks and the oil derived from them are found in most brake pads and shoes.