Wood Nanocrystals Are Like Carbon FIber Only Lighter, Stronger, And Cheaper

The US Forest Products Laboratory, taking a break from their lucrative pinecone-powered robotics projects, have opened a new $1.7 million pilot plant around Madison, WI to develop new nanocellulose materials. The new wood-based materials can be stronger and lighter than both Kevlar and carbon fiber, at about ten percent of the cost of those materials.

The varied properties of cellulose nanocrystals (CNC) have interested many industries, ranging from incontinence pad makers to the military, but the automotive potential is the really interesting one here, of course. Light and strong are the holy grails of almost anything put onto an automobile, so these nanoscale-wood fiber-based materials have a great deal of potential for auto design.

Oh, and they can be made transparent. Which would be, of course, a huge deal for auto body design and materials, since glass is often the among heaviest parts of the car, for a given surface area. The styling possibilities of moldable, light, strong and transparent panels are huge.

This chart from the Forestry Products Laboratory shows that CNC has a greater tensile strength than either Kevlar or Carbon fiber, and way more than steel. Only the vastly more expensive carbon nanotubes beats it.

Material...........................Elastic Modulus................Tensile Strength
CNC......................................150 GPa.............................7.5 GPa
Kevlar 49..............................125 GPa.............................3.5 GPa
Carbon fiber.........................150 GPa.............................3.5 GPa
Carbon nanotubes..............300 GPa............................20 GPa
Stainless steel.....................200 GPa............................0.5 GPa
Oak..........................................10 GPa.............................0.1 GPa

CNC does have an Achilles' heel — being wood based, it can be highly compromised by water. This gives it remarkable absorbency qualities (that's what the Depends people are interested in) but that's not a good feature for car bodies. Still, with adequate painting and sealing, this could be overcome.

Wood Nanocrystals Are Like Carbon FIber Only Lighter, Stronger, And Cheaper

This new material has a great deal of potential, and, coming from a renewable resource (wood, or, as the cool kids call it, "tree venison") as opposed to petroleum-based plastics, it's also a far more environmentally friendly material.

The upshot of all this is that you should absolutely make large plywood wings and spoilers for your cars right now so everyone can see how cutting-edge you are.

(Sources: Forest Products Laboratory, Gizmag, FPL Report)