Stronger than steel.. Japan is looking forward to using wood pulp in the automotive industry

Stronger than steel.. Japan is looking forward to using wood pulp in the automotive industry

Stronger than steel.. Japan is looking forward to using wood pulp in the automotive industry

The global car companies’ rush to build lighter cars has prompted some auto component makers in Japan to consider using wood as an alternative to steel.

Japanese researchers and auto parts makers say a material derived from wood pulp weighs one-fifth that of steel and can be five times as strong.

They say that the material known as cellulose fine fibers (nano) may become a practical alternative to steel in the coming decades, although it faces competition from carbon materials and there is still a long way to go before it can be used on a commercial level.

Reducing vehicle weight will be a key factor in automakers’ quest to expand the use of electric vehicles. Batteries are an essential but expensive component of these cars, so reducing the weight of the car will lead to fewer batteries that you need, which will reduce costs.

Researchers at Kyoto University and major auto component suppliers such as Denso Corp., Toyota’s largest supplier, and Daikyo Nishikawa Corporation, are working using plastics combined with cellulose microfibers by breaking up wood pulp fibers into hundreds of microns, which represent one thousandth of a millimeter.

Micro-cellulose fibers have been used in a variety of products ranging from ink to translucent displays.

However, the potential for use in cars is made possible by the “Kyoto process”, in which chemically treated wood fibers are mixed with plastics while at the same time breaking them into microfibers, which cuts production costs by a fifth over other processes.

“This is the lowest cost and highest performance application of cellulose microfibers, which is why we are focusing on its use in automobile and aircraft parts,” Professor Hiroaki Yano of Kyoto University, who is leading the research team, told Reuters in an interview.

The university is currently working with auto component suppliers to develop a prototype for a car using micro-cellulose fiber-based components, with the model to be completed in 2020.

“We have been using plastics as an alternative to steel (for a while), and we hope that cellulose microfibers will expand the possibilities to achieve this goal,” said Yukihiko Ishino, a spokesman for Daikyo Nishikawa, which deals with Toyota and Mazda.

Other lightweight alternatives are being used by automakers, with BMW using carbon fiber-reinforced polymers in its i3 electric car and in its 7 Series.

High-strength steel and aluminum alloys are also widely used because they are cheaper and more recyclable.

Professor Yano said he was inspired by the idea of ​​research from a picture of the “Spruce Goose” cargo plane, which was made almost entirely out of wood by American billionaire Howard Hughes in 1947 and was at that time the largest plane in the world.

The cost of producing one kilogram of cellulose microfibers commercially is about 1,000 yen (nine dollars).

Yano aims to cut the cost in half by 2030, which he says would make the material an economical product. The production cost per kilogram of high-strength steel and aluminum alloys is about $2 at present.

Industry experts expect the price of carbon fiber to drop to about $10 per kilogram by 2025.

Analysts say high-strength alloys and aluminum will remain the most popular alternatives for years because auto component makers will need to change production lines and find ways to bond new materials such as cellulose microfibers to car parts.

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