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Cellulose nanofibres to replace steel in cars

With the rapid development of electric cars, finding a lightweight material to replace steel is more important than ever in the automotive industry. Japanese researchers and auto suppliers are working with what would appear to be an unlikely substitute: wood, or more specifically, cellulose nanofibres.

Car manufacturers are always searching for lighter materials, as a lighter car means less fuel. However, in a time where electric cars are gaining popularity, this becomes increasingly more important. Car batteries are expensive, so a reduction in car weight means that fewer batteries would be needed to power the vehicle, which saves on costs.

According to the researchers, a material made from wood pulp is 5 times as light and can be 5 times as strong as steel.

However, as promising as the material is in theory, it faces competition from carbon-based materials, and is not commercially viable yet, which is what the researchers are currently working on.

Researchers at Kyoto University and several major parts suppliers are working with plastics incorporated with cellulose nanofibres. These nanofibres are made by breaking down wood pulp fibres into several hundredths of a micron (one thousandth of a millimetre).

Nanofibres can be used in a variety of products, ranging from ink to transparent displays. In the case of car manufacturers, the researchers at Kyoto University have come up with a new method. Chemically treated wood fibres are kneaded into plastics, while simultaneously being broken down into nanofibres. This new process slashes the production costs to roughly one fifth of other processes.

The university, along with auto parts suppliers, are currently developing a prototype car using cellulose nanofibre-based parts, which should be completed in 2020.

Photos: Kyoto University / Reuters / Pixabay