Srikanth Pilla, an assistant professor in the automotive engineering department at Clemson University, is working with researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisc., on a way to turn trees into car bumpers and fenders.

The team is focusing specifically on trees that are removed during forest restoration projects. As Clemson explained in a press release, the team will convert some of those trees into “liquid suspensions of tiny rod-like structures with diameters 20,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.”

Pilla is using these structures, known as cellulosic nanomaterials, to develop new, biorenewable composite materials that could be shaped into automotive parts.  He says that after the parts are done being used, instead of going to a landfill, they could be composted.

But not only will the parts be eco-friendly, Pilla says, they will also be less likely to distort or break on impact.

“They will absorb the energy and just stay intact,” Pilla said. “You won’t have to replace them because there will be no damage at all. Parts made with current materials might resist one impact. These will resist three or four impacts.”

According to Clemson, one of the technical challenges Pilla and his team are facing is combining the water-friendly cellulosic nanomaterials with the water-unfriendly polymers. Figuring out a solution will be key to helping automakers mass produce the biorenewable composite.

“We will use supercritical fluid as a plasticizer, allowing the nanoreinforcements to disperse through the polymer,” Pilla said. “We can help develop a conventional technique that will be scalable in the automotive sector.”

The project will be funded for five years for $481,000. Pilla is also close to the end of his first year of another composites-intensive automotive project – developing ultra-lightweight car doors using carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic (CFRT) composites.