For millennia humans have been using wood to build and craft, but it’s looking like the humble tree might also be the building material of our future.
Researchers at Kyoto University are working to develop a material that uses wood pulp to create extra strong panels that they believe could be set to replace steel car parts within a decade. This new hybrid material is created using the millions of cellulose nanofibres (CNFs) found in wood pulp, which are then chemically treated and dispersed into plastic. The result is a material that is as strong as steel but around 80% lighter. All non-performance parts of a car (which includes anything but the engine, wheels and transmission) could feasibly be mass-produced using this new, significantly lighter material – this is a potential game-changer. The development comes as part of a wider push to reduce environmental impact across the car industry. Bringing down the weight of vehicles, especially top emissions offenders such as pick-up trucks and SUVs, could make a dramatic difference; just a 10% reduction in weight improves fuel economy by up to 8% according to the US Department of Energy.
However, this development doesn’t just impact fuel economy – it’s great for electric cars too. If a car can travel further on a single charge this will do much to reduce so called “range anxiety” – or the fear that your car will come to a dead halt halfway to the shops – which to date has been one of the biggest barriers to the large-scale consumer appeal of electric vehicles.
This kind of technology is already being used in many consumer products. A biodegradable microchip was created at the University of Wisconsin-Madison using CNF technology. In the textiles industry, fabrics such as Lenzing Modal®, which is manufactured from cellulose sourced from sustainable forests, has been a staple of eco-conscious fashion brands such as Amour Vert for a number of years.
Whilst this hybrid material being used in cars is by no means a perfect solution, and unlikely to be commercially viable for some years, it’s encouraging to see man-made sustainable materials getting stronger and more versatile by the day.
Who knows what other exciting wooden innovations we will be seeing in the future?