Editorial Feature

Cellulose Nanofiber Automotive Components

While a great number of Automotive Manufacturers are looking to incorporate more lightweight materials, such as aluminum, into their vehicles, steel continues to be the most used material in vehicles. The average vehicle is comprised of approximately 60% steel.

Despite the reality of this statistic, a number of Automotive Manufacturers are working towards creating much lighter vehicles to increase the fuel economy while improving the overall safety and performance of the vehicle. For example, heavier vehicles that are primarily composed of steel can be limited in their ease of maneuverability as compared to lighter vehicles.

Additionally, reducing a car’s weight by as little as 10% can improve its overall fuel economy by 6-8%.

Aside from aluminum, other materials that are used to replace the traditionally heavy materials, such as steel and iron, used in vehicles include magnesium (Mg) alloys, carbon fiber and polymer composites1. A number of automotive companies have already incorporated these types of materials into their vehicles, and the benefits associated with their implementation are drastic.

For example, Ford switched a majority of its steel components in their F-150 pickup truck to aluminum products, which reduced the overall weight of the vehicle by an impressive 700 pounds.

To continue this trend and global inclination to create lighter vehicles, Japanese Researchers at Kyoto University, along with suppliers including Denso Corporation and Daikyo-Nishikawa Corporation, have looked to cellulose nanofibers (CNFs) as a potential material to do just that.

Derived from wood-fiber pulp that has been refined to the nanolevel, CNFs have become the most widely used biomass material around the globe. This lightweight and highly elastic material is completely eco-friendly, as its plant origin significantly reduces the potential environmental impact in its production and disposal processes.

Applicable in a wide variety of industries, some CNF components can be found in filter material, electronic devices, foods, medicine, cosmetics, health care and much more. These unique advantages of CNFs are the exact reason why the Japanese Researchers looked at this material for its potential to be used in both automotive and aircraft parts, as its combined low-cost of production and potential to enhance product performance appeared promising.

To incorporate CNFs for vehicle use, the Japanese Researchers chemically treated the wood fibers through the “Kyoto Process,” which combined these treated fibers with plastic materials to be simultaneously broken down into several hundredths of a micron. While the average cost of CNFs is approximately $9 USD per kilogram (kg), which is comparable to that of aluminum and high-tensile strength steel alloys that average at $2 per kg, the Kyoto Researchers believe that the unique combination of plastic and CNF material will reduce production costs by 20% as compared to other automotive manufacturing processes.

Hiroaki Yano, the lead Researcher on this project at the University of Kyoto, is hopeful that not only will this CNF-plastic material change the traditional role of steel in car manufacturing processes, but they are also hopeful that production prices will reduce by 50% by the year 2030.

Despite the promise of the CNF material discovered by Kyoto Researchers, Automotive Experts believe that commonly used lightweight alternatives, such as high-tensile steel and aluminum, will remain the more popular alternatives over the next several years.

Despite the documented trend of vehicle weights steadily increasing over the last four decades, the high demand for developing a lightweight design and accompanying materials will not significantly reduce costs and environmental impacts of these vehicles. Additionally, the global push for lightweight vehicles will also allow for the successful development of electric vehicles and their numerous components. The incorporation of renewable resources into vehicles will support the strong global push towards a more sustainable environment.

Image Credit:

YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/ Shutterstock.com

References:

  1. “Lightweight Materials for Cars and Trucks” – Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
  2. “Japanese researchers use wood to make cellulose nanofiber autoparts stronger and lighter than metal” – Japan Times

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Benedette Cuffari

Written by

Benedette Cuffari

After completing her Bachelor of Science in Toxicology with two minors in Spanish and Chemistry in 2016, Benedette continued her studies to complete her Master of Science in Toxicology in May of 2018. During graduate school, Benedette investigated the dermatotoxicity of mechlorethamine and bendamustine; two nitrogen mustard alkylating agents that are used in anticancer therapy.

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