Henry Ford’s ingenious idea

In the early 1930s, businessman Henry Ford had a problem on his hands: amid a widespread crisis in the USA, fights with cartels and steel rationing, he needed to find an alternative way to continue producing his cars at an affordable price. One of his way out was to look at the countryside, starting from materials such as soy, wheat, corn, and hemp to imagine a car made of “agricultural plastic”. After years of research and financing, Ford introduced the Soybean Car to the public in 1941, a concept car that was a ton lighter than vehicles of the time and, if mass-produced, would help the country save about 10% of its total steel production. And more: the car would run on fuel also generated from burning hemp.

Image of the “Soybean Car” taken from the collection of The Henry Ford Foundation.

Ford’s plans, at that point over 70 years old, were not exactly isolated: they were based on “chemurgy”, an area of agricultural chemistry that can be considered a kind of grandmother of the bioeconomy – as shown in a recent article published by the University of Cambridge. Established around the 1920s, chemurgy was quite popular in those tough times – especially in the South of the United States, a region that suffered, even after decades, from the damages of the American Civil War in the mid-19th century.

He also made paint from ceramics, used in paintings he created himself – his versatility led the scientist to be called the “black Leonardo da Vinci” by Time magazine, the bible of magazines for decades, in 1941. “Use everything. With what you have, you will do what you want”, the polymath told the publication at the time, in a slogan that would not look bad as an explanation of the modern bioeconomy.

In fact, the first official definition of “bioeconomy”, its worth mentioning, would only emerge decades later: in 2012, when the European Commission defined the area as “the production of renewable biological resources and the transformation of these resources (and their disposal) into added value products such as food, fertilizers and fuels”.

As for Ford’s soybean car, it did not go ahead, it is good to remember, because with the entry of the USA into the Second World War, vehicle production in the country was paralyzed. Then, when the conflict ended, Henry Ford was already living his last years and the global economy and geopolitics had already been reconfigured in such a way that oil became dominant. And, it is no wonder that this conversation was resumed in the 1970s: with the two oil crises, the world began to realize that it could not depend solely on this matrix, which led to the creation of programs like our Pro-Alcohol – yes, a pioneering example of yellow-green bioeconomy.

But after all: why are we talking about this in the KPTL newsletter?

Because it’s necessary. Is required. And, because it is at the heart of our values.

In this resumption of our news, which you will receive every month, for us it is clear that the grandmother of bioeconomy has a lot to do with what we do here: the search for innovation that transforms realities, generating value for society and wealth for the largest number of people.

We also decided that it was time to return to this newsletter because there are many good stories to tell after a seismic movement like the pandemic. We are in a new world, where people have new priorities, traffic appears at new times and cities move differently – even happy hour has changed days, right? (By the way, speaking of happy hour, this story about Henry Ford and the soybean car is a good piece of trivia for when you run out of things to talk about…)

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1 question for 3…

In your opinion, how will 2024 be different from 2023?