Japan is Looking Into Making Auto Parts out of Wood Pulp

The "Kyoto Process" could make car parts that are five times stronger than steel and one-fifth the weight.

A mountain of wood chips await processing at the Fibria plant in Aracruz, ES, Brazil on July 26, 2011.   The chips will soon be converted to cellulose, the raw material for paper products.  Fibria is the largest producer of cellulose in Brazil.  Photographer: Rich Press/Bloomberg News.
Rich Press/Getty Images

Automakers are constantly looking for ways to add lightness to their cars in an effort to boost fuel economy for traditional cars and range for electric cars. Reuters reports that there’s some interesting research going on at Kyoto University that could change the not only how cars are made, but what they're made of.

The unlikely material that could replace steel is wood pulp. That doesn’t mean car parts will be made of wood exactly, but rather cellulose nanofibers. Cellulose nanofibers are nothing new—they’re used in commercial products already like ink and transparent displays. However, a new technique called the Kyoto Process (named after Kyoto University where it was developed) takes chemically treated wood fibers kneaded into plastics to create a strong, lightweight new material.

Not only does the Kyoto Process yield a potentially revolutionary new material, but it also the cheapest way to produce cellulose nanofibers. This is like a budget-friendly alternative to carbon fiber. The main downside to carbon fiber is the cost, but the Kyoto Process creates cellulose nanofibers with a similar strength-to-weight ratio of carbon fiber while costing less to produce. It’s unlikely that cellulose nanofibers will replace carbon fiber in high-end performance cars, but it would be a great way to reduce weight and add strength to high-volume production cars.

So why aren’t we using this stuff right now? It’s cheap, but not cheap enough for market viability. Right now, it costs about $9 to make a kilogram of cellulose nanofibers—less than carbon fiber, but more than the currently used high tensile steel and aluminum alloys which only cost about $2/kg to make. Not to mention the major overhaul that would be required to completely change the production process for auto parts.

If this innovative material ever does reach production cars, it’s many years away. Kyoto University professor Hirokai Yano believes the cost of the Kyoto Process could be cut in half by 2030, at which point it will start being economically viable for mass production.

Kyoto University is working with auto part suppliers to build a prototype car out of cellulose nanofibers that’s expected to be done in 2020. Is this the future, or just a cool science project? Let us know in the comments.