Trees could be turned into auto parts that are lighter, stronger and more environmentally friendly than the ones on the road now, as research based at Clemson University moves into its next phase.

Srikanth Pilla and his team are advancing the research with a new award of $346,332 from the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. That comes on top of the $481,000 provided last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Both are focused on materials derived from trees.

Srikanth Pilla, right, and his team are advancing research into lighter, strong and more environmentally friendly auto parts than what is currently available.

Srikanth Pilla, right, and his team are advancing research that could help make auto parts lighter, stronger and more environmentally friendly than they are now.

Researchers are focusing on the glove box or fender, but the results could later be applied to a wide variety of automotive components, including bumpers and instrument panels. The parts would be biorenewable, so they could either be recycled or channeled to a composting facility instead of a landfill when their time on the road is done.

Pilla, an assistant professor of automotive engineering, said that if all goes as planned, the technology could be ready for the manufacturing plant in as little as three years.

“My philosophy is to advocate sustainability in all walks of life, and this project is included,” he said. “This research also helps the automotive industry meet some of its most critical needs and does so through public-private collaboration that maximizes resources. We have shown that the fundamental science works and are now focusing on the manufacturing technologies.”

Cellulose nanocrystals are central to the research. They are rod-like structures 20,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair and suspended in liquid. They are made from trees removed during forest restoration projects that prevent wildfire.