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Leonardo Simon can be credited with making plastics a little more natural.

While Prof. Simon teaches material sciences at the University of Waterloo, it is his research over the past five years that is starting to revolutionize the composition of plastics and is bringing commercial interests to his door.

Thanks to his work, inedible agricultural crop waste, like wheat straw and other plant materials that are often burned in the field, can now be mixed with polypropylene. The organic waste replaces heavy calcium carbonate or chalk, which have traditionally acted as fillers in plastics.

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The result? A lighter plastic made from materials normally burned in the fields or otherwise scrapped.

"The technology can be implemented in a much larger, global scale. The nice thing about wheat straw is that it is found in all the populated areas in the world," he said. "From every angle we look at this technology it looks promising."

Automotive industry giant Ford took note, since polypropylene is a plastic extensively used in vehicles, in bumpers, fascias, door panels, and dashboards. The new plastic has been found to be of equal strength to its predecessor, but because it's lighter it makes vehicles more fuel efficient.

Ford began using the material in its sports utility vehicle the Flex, made in Oakville, Ont., in 2009. Prof. Simon is particularly pleased that it means field straw from fields around Waterloo is being transformed into vehicles.

"If you put Ford Flex and wheat straw in Google today, you will get a lot of entries," Professor Simon says.

There is interest in the technology overseas, and Prof. Simon has spoken about it in Japan and China in recent months.

Prof. Simon grew up in the state of Rio Grande Do Sul in southern Brazil, where he completed his master's degree in chemical engineering and his PhD in material science. He came to the University of Waterloo in 1999 as a visiting PhD scholar, and was invited back by the university in 2001 to teach. He became a Canadian citizen in 2004.

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His wife Josephine teaches at Waterloo's School of Pharmacy, and he has a three-year-old son, Daniel.

When he is not teaching, Prof. Simon likes to treat neighbours and friends to Brazilian hospitality.

"In Waterloo I am famous for my barbecues. In southern Brazil, we famous for our beef and for barbecues. It's how I spend my weekends."

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