The American Association for the Advancement of Science, a premier professional organization, has a motto of “Advancing science, serving society.” Walter Bradley, a Baylor University professor and ASA fellow, has realized this goal in a striking way—with coconuts.
Until recently, coconut husks have been discarded as agricultural waste, but Walter’s research team discovered their unique value. The husk fibers (called coir) exhibit physical properties suitable for numerous industrial applications. According to Walter, “They are the only natural fibers that come directly from a fruit. Their purpose in nature is to protect coconuts from falls of 60 to 80 feet. They provide high impact resistance because they are unusually stretchable—their ductility is ~25%, compared to 2% in most natural fibers. Coir fibers are strong due to their large diameter, and they are also rich in lignan, a fire-resistant natural chemical similar to certain resins. The fibers are not easily digestible by micro-organisms, nor do they readily decompose, making them extremely durable and resistant to mold.” Since discarded coconut husks are also available in huge quantities in tropical regions at a cost significantly lower than synthetics, they have vast economic potential.
How did an engineering professor like Walter get into the business of coconuts? One of his former graduate students, John Pumwa, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UniTech in Papua New Guinea, came to the United States for a sabbatical. Walter asked him whether he had any research proposals that could benefit the people of his native country, and John mentioned that coconut farmers were struggling to find markets for their products.
Worldwide, 11 million coconut farmers make an average of only $500 per year. Demand collapsed in 1992-93 when the vegetable oil industry ran a campaign stigmatizing the high saturated fat content of coconut oil. Ironically, the replacement was hydrogenated vegetable oil, loaded with trans fats, which turned out to have far worse effects on human health. Nevertheless, the impact on coconut farmers was devastating, and there was no relief in sight.
John and Walter originally hoped to make biodiesel from coconut oil. If residents of remote areas could create their own fuel, it would greatly speed rural electrification efforts. Unfortunately, the practical details became intractable. Production of biodiesel from vegetable oils requires methanol or ethanol that contains no water. Unfortunately, it could not be produced locally due to the high humidity in tropical regions. Problems such as these are not uncommon in applied research, and rather than giving up on coconuts, John and Walter looked for new areas of innovation.
When traveling in the Philippines, Walter encountered enormous quantities of discarded coconut husks, and he began to wonder whether this waste could be converted into a resource. Once his lab thoroughly studied the unique combination of properties of coir fibers, Walter knew that they had incredible potential as industrial materials.
In the past several years, Walter’s lab has developed numerous commercial applications for coconut fibers. They began by working with the automotive industry, designing parts such as trunk liners, floorboards and interior door panels. These products are currently undergoing testing and evaluation, and they may appear in new car and truck models as soon as next year. Additionally, coconut fibers are emerging in several other markets. Gardening stores are interested in making coir fiber mats to sell as weed barriers. Construction companies want to use them as building materials. And there is also talk of using these fibers for an especially innovative project—creating temporary road surfaces.
Walter hopes that these new uses for coconut fibers will increase demand and raise coconut farmers’ average yearly income from $500 to perhaps as much as $1500, dramatically boosting their quality of life. In doing so, he has emerged as a shining example of the AAAS motto of advancing science and serving society.