The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards require car manufacturers to increase the fuel economy of cars and light trucks to more than 50 mpg by 2025. One way they hope to achieve this goal is by using lighter-weight, higher-strength steel components; another is by using plastic and polymer composite materials to reduce the weight of the vehicle and thereby provide improved fuel economy, as well as improved safety and performance.
As noted in the prior blog post, Fiber-Reinforced Polymer Composites: The Light Weight Heavy Hitters, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy maintains that, at a lower cost, fiber-reinforced composites (FRPs) could reduce the weight of a passenger car by 50% and improve its fuel efficiency by about 35% without compromising performance or safety – helping to save American families more than $5,000 in fuel costs over the car’s lifetime. FRPs can also be used to make high pressure tanks for natural gas-fueled cars.
The idea is picking up momentum. In January of this year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced more than $55 million will be made available to fund clean energy vehicle technologies, including projects to reduce the price and improve the efficiency of plug-in electric, alternative fuel, and conventional vehicles. Topics addressed include lightweight materials.
The Materials Technical Team (MTT) Roadmap, published by the U.S. DRIVE Partnership, was created to investigate ways to reduce the mass of structural systems such as the body and chassis in light-duty vehicles (including passenger cars and light trucks) by 50%. The MTT plans to identify technology gaps, establish R&D targets, and develop roadmaps for materials and manufacturing technologies aimed at high-volume vehicle production using affordable, high-performance materials.
The team’s technical scope encompasses advancements in design, joining, corrosion mitigation, crash energy management, predictive and computational tools, and component manufacturing processes to facilitate the widespread use of lightweight materials including polymer composites. Because there is a broad range of polymer composite compositions, there is great potential to use these materials to reduce vehicle mass compared to steel, ranging from 25–30% (glass fiber systems) up to 60–70% (carbon fiber systems). However, according to the MTT document, challenges to mass adoption of polymer composites include cost, both for the materials and the costs of converting an infrastructure designed to deal with metal components, as well as supplier capability and achieving efficient high-volume manufacturing.
The related publication, Plastics in Automotive Markets Technology Roadmap: A New Vision for the Road Ahead published by the American Chemistry Council, acknowledges these limitations but forecasts that “by 2020, the automotive industry and society at large recognize plastics as a preferred material solution that meets, and in many cases sets, automotive performance and sustainability requirements.”
A variety of fibers is used as plastic composite material reinforcements and may be chemically modified to enhance their properties. Fourier Transformed Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) is a valuable polymer characterization tool for product design and manufacture. To get some basics about Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, download the Introduction to FT-IR.
Visit the Polymers Community for a variety of educational resources about how FTIR and other analytical tools can be used to ensure your plastic and polymer materials meet specifications and quality standards.