TOKYO -- Furukawa Electric is looking to turn cellulose nanofiber-reinforced composites into a new revenue driver, following the development of a manufacturing technology that allows the material to be produced at one-tenth of the current costs.
The manufacturer of wires, cables and metal parts aims to have a method for mass production ready by 2024 and market the CNF composite to automakers looking for economical, eco-friendly ways to lighten their cars.
CNF composites are made from nanofibers of plant cellulose mixed with resin to create a sturdy material that is five times lighter than iron and three to five times stronger. Petroleum-based carbon fiber-reinforced composites are also light and strong, but the plant-derived cellulose nanofibers are easier to recycle.
To date, the development of CNF composites has been largely the domain of paper manufacturers, who make the material in a complicated multi-step process. The high manufacturing cost of up to around $90 per kilogram has been a hurdle to adoption.
With its new technology, Furukawa Electric can make CNF composites for around $3.50 per kilogram. It does this in a single-step process by reacting the pulp and resin together with additives in an extruder, utilizing the same resin-processing technologies it uses to make wire cables.
In addition to low production cost, this method also produces a CNF composite that has adhesive properties, enabling the material to be attached to metals just by using a high-temperature press without the need for other adhesives or screws.
The Japanese company intends to begin by promoting the use of its CNF composites for automotive interiors, electronics components and body exterior panels. It envisions a market worth 400 billion yen ($3.5 billion) as a replacement for fiberglass composites. In the future, it may also promote the CNF composite as a replacement for iron and aluminum body parts.
Furukawa Electric built its business on electric and electronics equipment, including wires and telecommunications infrastructure, but in the year that ended in March more than a quarter of the 843.3 billion yen sales came from products for the automotive industry. It aims to develop CNF composites into a new source of revenue in this sector to complement its businesses with wire harnesses and winding wire for motors.