KYOTO, Japan - A global push for lighter vehicles has led some automakers to consider an unlikely substitute for steel: wood.
 
As reducing the weight of a vehicle will be crucial as manufacturers move toward churning out electric cars for a mainstream consumer base, automakers must consider lighter materials. Wood pulp, just 20 percent the weight of steel, and five times as strong, is at the top of Japanese researchers' considerations, reported Reuters. 
 
The specific materials, cellulose nanofibers, are now being used to create various products such as ink and transparent displays. In cars, the fibers, obtained by breaking down wood, will be mixed with plastics in a process recently dubbed as "the Kyoto Process," named after Japan's Kyoto University who's leading the research. In the process, chemically treated wood fibers are kneaded into plastics while simultaneously being broken down into nanofibres, slashing the cost of production to roughly one-fifth that of other processes.
 
“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," said Hiroaki Yano, professor at Kyoto University who leads the research on such incorporation, to Reuters.
 
Automobile suppliers are hopeful. A reduction in car weight would require fewers batteries, saving costs.
 
Yukihiko Ishino, a spokesman at DaikyoNishikawa, which supplies parts for Toyota and Mazda, said: “We’ve been using plastics as a replacement for steel, and we’re hoping that cellulose nanofibers will widen the possibilities toward that goal.”
 
Many challenges must be addressed along the way, however. Cellulose nanofibers face competition from carbon-based materials, which are currently much cheaper to produce.
 
"Lightweighting is a constant issue for us," said Masanori Matsushiro, a project manager overseeing body design at Toyota, to Reuters. "But we also have to resolve the issue of high manufacturing costs before we see an increased use of new, lighter-weight materials in mass-volume cars."
 
Yano's team is working with several automakers in Japan to complete a prototype car built with cellulose nanofiber parts. They hope to complete it by 2020.