Here's why your next car could be made of wood

August 16, 2017

The University of Kyoto is partnering with two of Japan’s leading auto parts suppliers to develop a new, wood fiber-based plastic that can be formed into a strong, lightweight, structural piece of a car. By 2020, they expect to have the first prototype completed.

This is hardly the first time wood has been used in structural elements of a car, of course. Among others, English sports car company Morgan has famously been making frames out of wood since the 1930s. But this is no antiquated homage to a simpler time. It’s a cutting-edge technology poised to rival carbon fiber as auto manufacturers look to make cars more efficient in every way.

Cellulose Nanofiber (CNF) is composed of the basic structural element of a plant’s cell walls. Researchers have been working on ways to make products with it since the 1970s, but the difficult nature of collecting the cellulose has typically made it cost-prohibitive, because the wood itself must first be disintegrated.

Last year, however, researchers made separate breakthroughs that rapidly accelerated CNF development. Together, they comprise a new way of working with the fibers to form plastics, while greatly reducing cost. The ramifications are big enough that the annual Honda Prize, given to those who advance the international community’s knowledge of science and technology, was awarded to both researchers.

Essentially, the developments mean that it is now possible to use CNF in lieu of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber, and carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) are used in everything from the latest jet fighters, jumbo jets, and race cars, to an ever-increasing array of new cars. It’s used because it’s both stronger than steel, and much, much lighter, which helps to reduce fuel consumption and improve performance.

Now, Kyoto University is teaming up with Denso and DaikyoNishikawa, both of which are major automotive developers and suppliers to companies like Toyota, Honda, and Mazda. The aim is to develop CNF into a proper rival for CFRP, and the professor at the fore told Japan Times that he expects production prices to be about one fifth that of CFRP within the next decade. If true, that would make for a revolutionary change in automotive production.

We’ve come a long way since the days of Morgan. Wood may just be the new carbon.

-- by Aaron Miller

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