A new lightweight plant-derived material that can replace carbon fiber in many applications.

Cellulose nanofiber weighs a fifth as much as steel but is more than five times as strong. The company is eyeing such applications as automobiles, aircraft and organic light-emitting diode displays.

Oji plans to introduce equipment capable of churning out 250,000 sq. meters a year of transparent sheet at as-yet-undisclosed domestic facilities starting in the second half of 2017. It will spend 2 billion yen ($19.2 million) there on modifications to accommodate cellulose nanofiber production.

By design, the equipment’s capacity could be quadrupled at the most. Oji now makes cellulose nanofiber at a research center in Tokyo and ships it to dozens of companies, such as automotive and appliance makers, as samples for them to develop lightweight materials as possible replacements for steel and glass.

The company decided on mass production in light of growth in demand. In sheet form, cellulose nanofiber can be folded and rolled up. It is also drawing attention for its potential to help make smartphones lighter and thinner.

Cellulose nanofiber is already made by paper companies and research institutions in Northern Europe and the U.S. But performance, production methods, and even the definition of the material all vary.

The Japanese are ahead in cultivating commercial applications, and the breadth of the nation’s manufacturing sector is seen giving them an advantage in developing materials for parts as well.

The cellulose nanofiber market is expected to reach 1 trillion yen in 2030, according to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

Carbon fiber is derived from petroleum. But cellulose nanofiber is made from plants, lowering the risk of feedstock shortages. The material will also be cheaper to make when mass production is launched. Carbon fiber costs 2,000 yen to 3,000 yen per kilogram, while cellulose nanofiber is seen costing about 1,000 yen per kilogram around 2020.

The likes of Nippon Paper Industries and Daio Paper are also moving to begin mass production. Development of applications is seen accelerating. Nippon Paper will make the material in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, for shipment to automakers, appliance manufacturers and their suppliers.

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