The popularity of electric cars and the global trend for environmentally friendly vehicles is inspiring auto suppliers all over the world to search for the lightest building materials possible. Batteries are the most expensive, yet crucial part of electric vehicles, so the more lightweight the vehicle, the less batteries are required for operation. For this reason alone, manufacturers are testing out every alternative material available in an effort to cut costs.
Kyoto University Professor Hiroyuki Yano is leading the research on making car parts using cellulose nanofibers by utilizing the “Kyoto Process”
Perhaps the newest breakthrough is coming from Japan, and although it sounds strange, a component made from wood pulp could be the most viable and cost-efficient alternative yet. The material, cellulose nanofibers, weighs just one fifth of steel and can be up to five times stronger. This is not wood in any traditional form familiar to the general populace of course, and a vehicle made of wood will not look like the car released early last year by Toyota. Coincidentally, the researchers exploring the use of this unique material are from Toyota's biggest parts supplier, Denso Corp, along with academics from Kyoto University.
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Cellulose nanofibers are not actually new, though their use in auto part manufacturing is just in its infancy state, but the material is already being used in many products, such as ink and transparent displays. It is the “Kyoto Process,” however, that is opening the doors to the possibility of incorporating it into car parts. This procedure entails chemically treated wood fibers be kneaded into plastics while simultaneously generating the nanofibers, a method which could slash the cost of production astronomically.
Chemically treating wood chips and fibers are combined and kneaded to create cellulose nanofibers.
At this point, carbon-based materials are still a more popular option, but the team of researchers working with cellulose nanofibers are hoping to have an entire prototype vehicle completed by 2020. If they can succeed, and the savings are truly as great as it predicted, we can expect to see a game-changing shift in the way cars are manufactured in the not-so-distant future.