Automakers all across the globe are turning to sophisticated new materials in order to drop weight, improve performance, and optimize safety. Aluminium alloys, high-tensile steels, and even carbon fibres have been the go-to for the last few years, and with impressive results – just look at the way the latest generation of Ford F-150s used an aluminium alloy to make everything else seem outdated.

But now we have something else on the horizon, and it’s not even made from metal. Believe it or not, the future of driving could be wood pulp.

It’s still early days for the would-be wooden car, but researchers from Japan’s Kyoto University report that the cellulose nanofiber material is one-fifth as heavy as steel and yet five times stronger. Cellulose nanofibers have been used in plenty of other industries, and the potential for automotive application is huge. In a procedure dubbed the Kyoto Process, wood fibres are kneaded into plastics and simultaneously broken down into nanofibers. The method is said to reduce production costs to one-fifth that associated with other procedures.

As explained by research leader and Kyoto University Professor Hiroaki Yano: “This is the lowest-cost, highest-performance application for cellulose nanofibers, and that’s why we’re focusing on its use in auto and aircraft parts.”

Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait quite a few years for research to bear fruit. Cellulose nanofibers won’t replace other lightweighting materials until automakers revamp their production lines, and cost is an even more important consideration. To manufacture aluminium alloys and high-tensile steel costs around $2 per kilogram; to mass produce a kilogram of cellulose nanofiber, you’re looking at $9. You see the problem.

The team over in Kyoto are hoping to produce an economically viable solution by 2030, when production costs are hoped to have been slashed in half. That would make them competitive with other materials, especially since carbon fibre prices are expected to rest around $10 per kg by 2025.

Before that day comes, if it ever does, we’ll be able to hear about what it’s like to drive a car built using cellulose nanofibers. Even though the material isn’t quite ready for mass adoption, a prototype is being developed for 2020.

Nobody can yet say what effect cellulose nanofibers will have on the automotive industry, but successful integration would certainly prove a huge step forward.

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