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Materials Science Meets Automotive Design: At a Major Intersection in 2016

Posted on January 22nd, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

1961_AMC_PRfoto_Designers

The goals of automobile design – weight reduction, aerodynamic body design, minimal component rust and deterioration – are all tied to overcoming the chemical limitations of using a combustion reaction as a power source. The puzzle facing engineers has changed little since consumers began buying up Model Ts by the thousands. Instead, regulations demanding safer, cleaner-running vehicles for mass consumption have required engineers to constantly innovate to solve the same problems more efficiently.

As a result, the evolution of the automobile industry has historically been paced by developments in material science. Engineers are always limited by the resources at their disposal, so advances in plastics, metallurgy and chemical manufacturing have played a significant role in providing car makers with new solutions to their persistent design challenges.

What has changed significantly over the years is the extent at which automakers are working directly with the material science industries to drive innovation and develop new materials. Within materials science lies the path to superior engine, body frame, transmission, brake and exhaust components, and this sector-wide shift is likely to play a major role in shaping the direction of multiple material science industries in 2016.

Here are some key examples of ways that the intertwining futures of auto manufacturers and material scientists will play out in 2016.

Better ceramics lead to better brake pads and engine parts
Ceramic materials are widely used in the auto industry thanks to their hardness, impressive heat resistance and reliable structural integrity at high temperature. New methods and materials developed in 2015 by ceramics material researchers are expected to play an important role in the auto industry’s subsequent evolutions.

A study published in the MR International Journal of Engineering and Technology by researchers at Manav Rachna International University highlighted some of the advancements in ceramics development with the greatest application in automobile design:

  • Composite ceramics reinforced with materials like A359 aluminum alloy have already been used in brake pads by manufacturers, and this trend is expected to gain greater traction as these companies identify more cost-effective means of production. The recent discovery by HRL Laboratories, LLC of a ceramic resin that can be used to produce complex 3D components may be a breakthrough that tips the scale for manufacturers and material scientists working with ceramics in 2016.
  • Fire and chemical-resistant ceramics reinforced with aluminum nitride have found their way into engine components, including piston heads, ring grooves and fuel injectors. Wider use of Al2, SiC, ZrO2 and O3 ceramics designed specifically to maintain stability despite high temperature conditions under the hood of a vehicle is expected in the near future.
  • Electronic components installed inside vehicles demonstrate extensive application opportunities for new composite ceramic materials as well. Oxide ceramics like aluminum titanate, modified with the addition of Cr, Fe and Ni, will see additional use in onboard dashboard devices due to their high density.

Manufacturers will continue to support metallurgy development
Nowhere is the trend of car manufacturers investing in materials science breakthroughs more apparent than in the development of new metals and alloys.

For example, lightweight metal scientists at Alcoa announced Micromill, a new process for speeding up the production of stronger, more formable aluminum alloys, in the final weeks of 2014. Within a year, automotive giant Ford reached a collaborative agreement with Alcoa to feature the material in its vehicles, according to Insider Car News. These types of agreements will help to simultaneously increase the auto industry’s investments in material science while also creating new opportunities for advanced materials research. As a result, material scientists specializing in metallurgy now have a go-to application when making a case for the value of their research.

New techniques like UCLA’s  process of injecting silicon carbide nanoparticles into magnesium-zinc alloys can be used to produce ultralight yet heat-resistant and durable vehicle components, reported Autoblog. Similarly, it won’t be long before a new technique published in the science journal Nature sees widespread adoption by auto manufacturers. Researchers have discovered that strengthening aluminium-steel alloys through the manipulation of brittle but hard intermetallic compounds like FeAl produces a material with performance capabilities similar to titanium-alloys with considerably reduced ductility.

Materials scientists use versatile nanomaterial graphene to solve lithium-air batteries

Some auto manufacturers developing hybrid and electric vehicles have hyped up lithium-air batteries as a technological holy grail necessary for the evolution of the industry. These batteries boast considerably higher theoretical charge capacity than any technology currently on the market. However, lithium-air adoption has been slowed by the technology’s rough edges. Greater collaboration between material sciences and automobile manufacturers, however, has created an environment that will quickly close the gap as soon as new methods and materials become readily available.


The BBC noted that advancements in graphene, heavily influenced by recent developments in carbon nanoparticle manufacturing, will allow manufacturers to design active-host materials that minimize oxygen reduction and other side reactions that compromise the long-term performance of lithium batteries. The new material, known as reduced graphene oxide, is capable of producing cathodes and other battery materials that could quickly become a standard solutions for auto manufacturers savvy in the latest material science developments.

With sustainability concerns driving consumer decisions and no end to ramped up environmental regulations in sight, it is likely that the relationship between auto manufacturers and material science industries will grow even closer through the end of the decade.

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