Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNLL), along with experts from industry and academia, have developed predictive engineering tools for designing economical, lightweight automotive composites.

This approach should speed the development of more low-cost carbon fibre composite materials.

Lower cost, lighter weight materials are needed for improved fuel efficiency.

Reducing the weight of vehicles is one of many ways auto manufacturers are looking to improve the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks. Indeed, reducing the weight of a vehicle by 10 percent yields a 6–8 percent improvement in fuel economy.

One of the most promising lightweight material systems to replace heavy steel on automobiles is carbon fibre reinforced plastics.

However, while stronger and lighter than steel, carbon fibre composites are relatively expensive, resulting in the need for judicious use of the material.

For widespread adoption of carbon fibre to occur, new, economical composites that meet mechanical and safety requirements—such as long carbon fibre-reinforced thermoplastic resins with polypropylene and polyamide as matrix materials—need to be developed.

Carbon fibre properties, however, are more complicated to model than metal properties as carbon fibre composites depend on complex features such as the fibre loading as well as fibre length distribution and fibre orientation that occur in the material due to the manufacturing process.

Current development processes for composite components require carmakers to build moulds, mould parts, and test them. It is a long, arduous process, slowing the advance of new, more cost-effective carbon fibre composites in automobiles.

Using the engineering software validated by the PNNL-lead team, manufactures will be able to “see” what the structural characteristics of proposed carbon fibre composites designs would be like before they are molded. The tools allow manufacturers and auto part designers to experiment and explore new ideas at a much faster rate.


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