The molecules of plant fibres are being converted into a lightweight material five times stronger than steel. The material can be used to make everything from auto parts to electronic displays.

Plant fibres are being turned into a product called cellulose nanofiber. The raw materials that can be used include trees, rice straw and orange peel (of all things) so the supply is not going to be a problem. It’s also very environmentally friendly. The nanofiber is still in the development stage but Japanese executives, where the nanofiber is made, expect that domestic sales alone could be worth US$8.3 Billion within fifteen years. Japan imports almost all of its metal so the product is guaranteed to be a winner.

The first commercial product is already on the market. It’s a two-dollar pen from the Mitsubishi Pen Company and is sold in North America. Similar existing products include the “Bio-pen” made in Germany and manufactured from recycled cardboard, beech wood and plastic. The Mitsubishi product raises the bar by using only cellulose fibres that are completely biodegradable. “Cellulose nanofiber could be an ace-in-the-hole for Japan’s industry” said Hiroyuki Okaseri, a senior pulp and paper analyst at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. in Tokyo.

Developed Countries need to restrict carbon emissions and Japan sees the commercial development of a plant-based material as an attractive option to existing heavy-metal industries. Government data shows the steel industry is Japan’s top polluter among manufacturers, accounting for more than 40 percent of industry emissions. A car in your near future could quite easily be made from the new nanofiber. The Ministry of the Environment sought 3.8 billion yen to assess the potential for improved fuel efficiency and lower emissions by using the lighter-weight material in vehicles.

Other uses of nanofiber are an ingredient in adult diapers; a product to slow the melting of soft-serve ice cream and a material for use in cosmetics such as cream foundations, gels, shampoo and mascara. While replacing steel won’t happen immediately, car bodies made of cellulose nanofiber are a possibility, according to Kentaro Doi, director of the environment ministry’s climate-policy division. The economy ministry estimates automotive uses could account for as much as 60 percent of the 1 trillion yen market within 15 years. That figure could rise many times when markets outside Japan are considered, Watanabe said.