Designers assure us that the highways of tomorrow will be filled with lighter, cleaner and more fuel-efficient automobiles made in from recycled plastics (from things like soda bottles), wood pulp and cellulose.

Researchers at General Motors are pinning their hopes on a substance called carbon fiber, an extremely strong thin fiber made by heating synthetic fibers, such as rayon, until charred (there?s no word about whether it can be recycled from existing materials).

Carbon fiber is one-fifth the weight of steel, yet just as strong and stiff. Replacing half the metals in current automobiles with carbon fiber could reduce a vehicle’s weight by 60% and reduce fuel consumption by 30%. The resulting gains in fuel efficiency, because smaller engines could be used with lighter vehicles, would also reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions by 10 to 20%. Computer crash simulations show that cars made from carbon fiber would be just as safe?perhaps safer?than today’s automobiles. Hybrid cars made of carbon fiber would be a big breakthrough.

The problem: Right now, carbon fiber is too expensive to be practical, so breakthroughs need to be made before it can replace steel in auto manufacturing.

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