Anyone could see wood as the last material to use when building a car in this day and age, but Japan thinks otherwise.
Apparently, Japanese researchers and car makers are studying the potential of wood as a substitute for steel to create lighter and stronger cars.
In particular, they are paying attention to cellulose nanofibers, a material made from wood pulp that weighs just one-fifth of steel yet five times stronger, Reuters reported.
For context, reducing a car’s weight is important so that fewer batteries may be required to power them.
According to the outlet, cellulose nanofibers are now being used to create various products such as ink and transparent displays. Their use in cars is anticipated in what has been dubbed the “Kyoto Process,” where wood is broken down into such fibers while being mixed with plastics.
Hiroaki Yano, professor at Kyoto University who leads the research on such incorporation, told Reuters:
“This is the lowest-cost, highest-performance application for cellulose nanofibers, and that’s why we’re focusing on its use in auto and aircraft parts.”
Automobile suppliers are hopeful. Yukihiko Ishino, a spokesman at DaikyoNishikawa, which supplies parts for Toyota and Mazda, said:
“We’ve been using plastics as a replacement for steel, and we’re hoping that cellulose nanofibers will widen the possibilities toward that goal.”
There are challenges to beat along the way, however. For one, cellulose nanofibers are facing competition against carbon-based materials, which are currently used as cheaper lightweight alternatives.
In addition, the nanofibers may not be economically viable soon, as a kilogram of their mass-production comes at a price of 1,000 yen ($9). Yano hopes to halve this cost by 2030 to ensure the material’s commercial standing.
For now, Yano and his team, in cooperation with several automobile suppliers in Japan, are expecting to complete a prototype car with parts built with cellulose nanofibers in 2020.