Japanese researchers believe that a material made from wood could be strong enough to one day replace steel in cars and trucks.
Reuters this week detailed efforts by Kyoto University and two partner companies to develop ultra-high-strength plastics infused with cellulose nanofibers.
The nanofibers, which are already in use in inks and transparent displays, are created when wood fibers are broken down into strands of less than one one-thousandth of a millimeter in size.
Kyoto researchers, however, developed a process to chemically treat wood fibers then split them into nanofibers and incorporate them into plastic. The process is much cheaper and results in a material both five times stronger and five times lighter than steel.
The research is focused on the automotive and aerospace industries, which are under pressure to meet tougher fuel efficiency standards. The auto sector, in particular, is turning to lighter-weight aluminum, but analysts believe that carbon fiber and other, lighter alternatives will gradually become more important in vehicle production.
Reuters noted that the cost of cellulose nanofiber production is expected to be cut in half by 2030, which would make it economically competitive with conventional steel. Kyoto researchers hope to advance the material by developing a prototype vehicle by 2020.
"We've been using plastics as a replacement for steel, and we're hoping that cellulose nanofibers will widen the possibilities toward that goal," Yukihiko Ishino of auto parts maker DaikyoNishikawa — one of Kyoto's partner companies — told Reuters.