Back in April, The Cheat Sheet did a piece on how Ford is investing large amounts of money into a program that focuses on large-scale carbon fiber automotive components and how this lightweight, super strong material may be the product of the future once scientists find a way to create it inexpensively. Meanwhile, researchers in Japan have ditched this approach completely, and instead are working on a way to build cars out of trees, rice, and orange peels. The crazy thing is, it just might work.
We’ll get to talking about orange peels and rice in a moment. For now, let’s focus on the primary source of raw materials for this project: Tree pulp. Wood-derived fiber (pulp) is an extremely fibrous substance, and once it has been defibrated (steam processed) to a nano-level of several hundredths of a micron or smaller, it becomes this extremely complex, interwoven mesh. Commonly referred to as cellulose nanofiber, this completely natural product is one of the world’s most advanced biomass materials, and scientists claim that since it is directly derived from plant fibers, it has an extremely low environmental impact in its production and disposal, unlike carbon fiber, which is pretty dirty all around.
This unorthodox composition is extremely lightweight, has the elasticity of high-strength aramid fiber (think military-grade, ballistic-rated body armor), features thermal expansion characteristics that compete with glass, and has high barrier properties for oxygen and other gases, so it can be made air-tight. Rated five times stronger than steel, this product can be turned into everything from bumpers and suspension components, to touchscreen displays and door handles. Sure, carbon fiber is a lot cooler-looking, and telling someone that your sports car’s front lip is made out of wood makes you look like a redneck, but if it is lighter, stronger, and more environmentally sound, who cares what it is made out of?
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: We still have a long way to go before cars are made out of cellulose nanofiber. Instead let’s assess an extremely successful office supply that contains this pulpy product: I am speaking of the Uniball Signo 307 ballpen seen here, which is a $2 pen that Mitsubishi Pencil Co. sells in both North America and Britain, and is living testament to what is possible down the line. From adult diapers to slowing the melting process of soft-serve ice cream, Japanese firms are all over nanofibers, and while large scale development is still in its infancy stages, a report by Bloomberg states that “the government estimates domestic sales may be worth about 1 trillion yen ($8.3 billion) in 15 years.”
Always looking for ways to cut carbon emissions, both the Japanese government and industry leaders view the refinement of plant-based building material as a pivotal alternative to metals and minerals, which require large amounts of fossil fuels in order to be extracted, transported, and processed. Japan’s steel industry remains its premier polluter in the manufacturing ring, and since it accounts for more than 40% of industry emissions over there, it is no wonder that the idea of greener materials is such a huge hit for the Japanese, who love all things “Eco.”
However, there are some potential side effects from this product that no one seems to be talking about. I don’t want to be the guy who pisses on Japan’s pulp-filled parade, but if they are going to go about this properly, on a large scale, some major precautionary steps must be addressed because their entire inland ecosystem hangs in the balance.
Since Japan has far more trees than it does oranges, and timber yields far more fiber than rice, industry leaders are focusing their interests on the inland forests of Japan, which make up a staggering 70% of the entire country since the majority of its major cities lay along the coastline. Spearheaded by the paper industry, analysts believe that looking toward new markets is crucial for keeping these companies afloat, as Japan’s shrinking population and the shift to digital content continues to erode away at the public’s demand for magazines, newspapers, manga, and paper documents.
Speaking of eroding away, let’s say hypothetically that this entire venture takes off, and Japan begins to use its forests for the first time since Edo (modern day Tokyo) burnt to the ground and had to be rebuilt. The sheer volume of deforestation is going to be unprecedented, and dealing with all of the environmentalist protesters is going to be a cakewalk if any mass erosion and watershed pollution occurs. Remember, Japan is a mountainous archipelago, and the majority of these forests are nestled atop steep inclines, so clearing them will be extremely labor intensive. Mudslides are already a serious concern over there too, and these root systems are often the only thing keeping these mountainsides in place. Japan’s Ministry of the Environment knows this, but instead of confronting these topics head-on, has decided to make their quest for 3.8 billion yen to assess the potential for improved fuel efficiency and lower emissions by using these lightweight materials in cars priority number one.
Seiko PMC Corp., a chemical manufacturer for the paper industry, is already offering cellulose nanofiber samples made at a pilot plant that began operating last year. Cellulose nanofiber research and production has complete backing from the government courtesy of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who plans on reviving Japan’s stagnant economy in any way possible. Bloomberg reports that Japan’s economy ministry estimates that automotive use could account for as much as 60% of cellulose nanofiber’s 1 trillion yen market within 15 years, and that this figure could increase exponentially if foreign markets were applied to the equation. All of this is being driven by stricter emissions rules, which are forcing manufacturers to explore new fuel efficiency practices, along with weight-saving techniques.
Unfortunately, for the time being making cellulose nanofiber is still an extremely expensive venture, with Japan’s annual production of 50 tons running around $58,500 a metric ton currently. “At issue is whether the material will overcome the hurdles of costs,” says Hiroyuki Yano, a professor at the laboratory of active bio-based materials at Kyoto University, who has been studying the development of cellulose nanofiber since 1998. “Japan has plentiful forest resources and also has industry trying to utilize them. Japan could become a resource-supply nation.”
So what about all of those orange peels and rice stalks? They too are fiber-rich and can be used since both can be blended with tree pulp to form an even stronger material once mixed with resins and polymers. Which reminds us of the time Ford made a car out of soybeans and phenolic resins prior to World War II, and somehow everyone forgot about it once the war was over. Who knows, maybe this development will be a little more permanent, and one day we can see “woody wagons” return.