In the labs of Toyota Motor Corp. outside Nagoya, 40 researchers are working to improve an unlikely object: the tree. To counteract environmental damage from car and truck exhaust, Toyota is developing unique trees that can absorb some of the toxic gases contained in smog and might help prevent global warming.
Why is Japan's No.1 carmaker dabbling in the agricultural arts? It's all part of an effort to establish itself as the world's greenest carmaker. Last December, Toyota became the first auto maker to bring to market an affordable hybrid car--powered by electricity and gasoline. In 1991, Toyota researchers began work on biology-based ways to clean up the environment. They launched Forest of Toyota, a project ranging from planting more trees to developing smog-eating plants.
COOL SHADES. The effect of Toyota's re-engineered trees won't be huge--it takes 20 regular trees to absorb the noxious gases of just one car in a year. But Toyota says it can improve that performance by 30%--and that's better than doing nothing. Toyota is also probing the potential of trees to prevent climate change. Global warming can be caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Trees absorb a lot of carbon dioxide, and genetically engineered trees might do even better.
Toyota is not alone. Royal Dutch/Shell will spend $500 million over the next five years planting forests in Chile and New Zealand to absorb carbon dioxide. Shell is also trying to find cleaner ways to burn wood, rather than oil, for fuel. In Japan, the Forestry Agency is examining how timberlands, which cover 70% of the country, can absorb more of the estimated 320 million tons of carbon dioxide that Japan generates every year. "Now, more people are researching what use our forests have, not in terms of wood products but in terms of our ecosystem," says Kazuo Suzuki, a botany professor at Tokyo University.
Kunio Matsui, the chief botanist on Toyota's tree project, says the goal was to create trees that absorb toxic gases such as nitrous oxide and sulfur dioxide found in smog. These can kill trees. But Matsui found that doubling the number of chromosomes in experimental trees widened the tiny air inlets on stems and leaves. Afterward, the inlets absorbed more nitrous oxide than in standard trees.
Matsui's methods weren't particularly efficient. He treated seeds of gum trees, conifers, broad-leaf trees, and London plane trees, but could make only two out of 10,000 seeds metamorphose into the versions with double chromosomes.
He has since refined his technique so that it works in as many as six seeds out of 100. Toyota applied for a patent in 1995 and sought a second patent in 1997 when Matsui discovered that his supertrees withstand salty ocean winds. Today, Matsui nurses 50 different varieties of the trees on a plot near Toyota's factory. In lab tests, his designer eucalyptus trees absorb up to 30% more nitrous oxide than the average tree, while altered London plane trees absorb 20% more. Matsui still must determine whether the trees perform as well outdoors, and whether they do any damage, such as taking up more than their share of soil nutrients.
Indeed, some environmentalists say Toyota is headed in the wrong direction. "If we want to reduce [nitrous oxide], we should reduce our automobile production and set lower emission standards," says Yuichi Sato, deputy director of research at Japan's Forestry Agency.
Another part of the Forest of Toyota project is an $800,000 model forest the company created last year next to a resort called Foresta Hills. The forest will soon be monitored with $80,000 worth of emissions-measuring equipment so Toyota can test the impact that different forestry techniques have on reducing carbon dioxide levels. Company researchers are also trying to grow trees in acid-drenched soil, a technique that could be used to restock ravaged rain forests in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, Toyota wants to line the highways of Japan with old-fashioned trees to absorb more carbon dioxide but must first win permission in overregulated Japan. Building a better tree is only half the battle--Toyota must still fight to plant them.