Composites in the Automotive Industry

October 27, 2016

Composites provide exceptionally high strength to weight ratios, making them attractive materials for use in industries in which weight matters – namely, the automotive industry.

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This body of this Lotus F1 racecar is made primarily of composite fiber, giving it strength and flexibility while
significantly reducing its weight.

Composite materials are composed of two materials: a matrix and a reinforcing material. When combined, the composite material has much stronger mechanical properties than either of the individual components alone. Because of their increased properties, composites provide exceptionally high strength to weight ratios, making them attractive materials for use in industries in which weight matters – namely, the automotive industry.

Articles about the growing use of composites in other industries:

Carbon fiber composites can provide as much or more stiffness and strength as steel and weigh about one fifth as much, meaning that they can reduce the weight of future vehicles by up to 60 percent. Car designers believe that weight reduction is the easiest way to reduce fuel consumptions, because a reduction in weight of 10 percent generally leads to a 6 to 8 percent reduction in fuel consumption. Additionally, carbon fiber does not rust or corrode like metals such as steel and aluminum which makes it ideal for cars which will be exposed to the elements.

However, carbon fiber can cost up to twenty times as much as steel. If carbon fiber is to become an economically viable option for mass production, then production techniques for low cost carbon fibers must be developed. Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s (ORNL) Carbon Fiber Technology Facility is currently exploring options for producing low cost carbon fiber. ORNL can produce carbon fibers with standard mechanical properties using textile-grade polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor. Textile-grade PAN costs less than half as much as fiber-grade PAN.

New techniques are also being used to speed up production time for composite parts in the automotive industry such as out of autoclave curing and new types of Resin Transfer Molding (RTM) techniques. In addition, an increase in the use of thermoplastic composites can be expected to occur in the long-term because they are easier to recycle, have a potential for higher damage tolerance, and faster production cycles. When combined, new manufacturing techniques and matrix materials can serve to drastically increase the speed of composites production and increase composites integration for the middle market automobile industry.

Composites have already been well-integrated into the aerospace industry and today it is not unheard of to see commercial aircraft constructed with up to 50 percent composite materials. If the automotive industry is to see that level of integration, improvements must be made to increase the availability and speed of composite production as well as to decrease the cost of more specialized composite materials like carbon fiber.

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