Lightweighting is a thing when it comes to making automobiles these days. Back in the Golden Age of the American automobile, manufacturers used to talk about cars with lots of “road hugging weight”. In 1962, Buick actually moved the entire powertrain further forward over the front wheels, a concept it called Advanced Thrust. It claimed better directional stability, less disturbance by crosswinds, and “snappier steering wheel response and return.”
In today’s world, automotive engineers are on the hunt for cars that weigh less, not more. Shaving the weight of a car by 10% can result in an 8% gain in miles per gallon according to the US Department of Energy.
Range is the motivating factor when it comes to electric cars. Less bulk means more miles between charging events. “There is a rush to try and cut as much weight as possible, especially on cars which will pollute more, like SUVs or pick-up trucks,” says Paolo Martino, an analyst at IHS Markit.
Researchers in Japan think they have found a way to make vehicle components such as doors, roofs and hoods from a blend of wood pulp and plastics. The resulting material is said to be as strong as steel but 80% lighter.
Prof Hiroyuki Yano of Kyoto University says his team is working on a process that chemically treats wood pulp — which consists of millions of cellulose nanofibres — and combines those nanofibers with plastic to create a hybrid material strong enough to replace some of the steel used in automobiles.
The new material could be less expensive than carbon fiber, which many manufacturers are turning to as lightweighting gains increased importance for meeting tighter regulations on emissions and economy. Professor Yano says he is collaborating with several manufacturers to determine if his discovery is commercially viable.
Cellulose nanofibres are already used in a wide range of products from ink to transparent displays but not in structural components as of yet. If they can be made for a competitive price and meet production demands, they could help car makers comply with new regulations without driving up the cost of new cars. Whether they would contribute to “snappier steering wheel response and return” remains to be seen.