Monday, October 31, 2016

Composites are next big frontier for carmakers


When the zero-emission Solar Impulse 2 aircraft touched down in Abu Dhabi after its 42,000km, round-the-globe voyage in July, it was hailed as a triumph of human daring and solar power technology.
But had it been made of aluminium, like a traditional aircraft, the Solar Impulse would be at the bottom of the ocean somewhere.
The one-person aircraft was able to make its journey because it was built from advanced materials known as composites that are displacing steel and aluminium in the aerospace industry because they tend to be lighter and stronger. Now, as the cost of these materials comes down, some experts are predicting a much bigger industry will adopt them en masse: carmakers.

“[Automotive] is the holy grail,” says William Wood, head of composites at Solvay, the Belgian chemicals company that supplied materials for the Solar Impulse aircraft. “Between five and 10 years is when these pieces come together — technology, scale, and cost. Enough has come together that you start to see mass adoption [in cars].”
Mr Wood says the Solar Impulse project underscored recent advances in the development of composites — where a fibre is reinforced with another substance to create a novel material with distinct characteristics.
Composites such as carbon fibre reinforced plastic can be tailored to be 10 times stronger than steel or a fifth of the metal’s weight. This makes them essential for high-tech industries where lower weight achieves big performance benefits and cost savings.
The Solar Impulse, for instance, has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 747, but it weighs just 2,300kg — about the same as a sport utility vehicle.  
Composites have a well-deserved reputation for being a space-age technology, but they have already gone mainstream in sports and taken over the market for competition-level bicycles, tennis rackets, and snowboards.
The total market for composite materials last year was worth $78.3bn, and should increase to $107.4bn by 2021, according to Lucintel, the consulting and market research group.
The leaders in supplying high-end composites are Toray of Japan and Hexcel of the US. Solvay catapulted into the top three players last year when it paid $6.4bn to acquire Cytec, a US-based provider of these materials to the aerospace sector.
These companies have been wanting to shift into the car market for 25 years, but composites have struggled to compete with steel. Lucintel said the cost of steel used in cars is about $1.10/kg, whereas carbon fibre ranges from $22 to $33/kg. In a few years, however, it projects the cost to fall to little as $7 to $13/kg.
Meanwhile, demand is just taking shape. Cars have been getting heavier, on average, since they were invented, but governments’ push to reduce emissions and the move from combustion engines to electric vehicles powered by heavy batteries is likely to propel a need for lightweight materials, say analysts.
Increased use of composites could help the average new car achieve a 10 per cent weight reduction by 2020, the year when tighter EU fuel economy standards come into effect, says Adam Collins, analyst at Liberum. A cut of that magnitude would improve fuel performance by 6.5 per cent — about a third of the savings needed to comply with the new standards.
Recognising the competitive threat posed by composites in the car industry, some steelmakers are developing higher-strength grades of the metal to try to reduce a vehicle’s weight. 
“You need to take the competition seriously,” says Greg Ludkovsky, head of research and development at ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker. “The ultimate goal is to constantly defend the position of steel by making it very formable and very strong.”
Steel is likely to be the dominant material used in cars in 2030 and beyond, says Martin Wörtler of the Boston Consulting Group. But, he adds, about two-fifths of a car’s parts, by weight, have the potential to be made from composites.
In aerospace, a slow start to composite usage eventually led to a tipping point, providing a model for the car market to duplicate.
Just 1 per cent of materials used in a Boeing 747 jumbo jet created in the 1970s were composites. Today, in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, composites are more than 50 per cent of the jet’s airframe by weight.
So far, BMW is leading the shift in the auto market. It introduced the first mass-produced passenger car whose frame and panels are made of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic in 2013 with its i3 model, an electric vehicle for city use. The same year it launched its hybrid i8 sports car, which also has a body made from composites. In both cars, the carbon fibre is 30 per cent lighter than aluminium.
The i-series has not yet been a huge market success, but it is certainly “piloting a new development”, says Mr Wörtler.
Andreas Martsman, vice-president of sales at Oxeon, a Swedish start-up that makes a proprietary composite called TeXtreme used in tennis rackets, bicycles and snowboards, says he is closely monitoring the shift into cars because economies of scale could drive innovations that aid the entire market. “When the car industry makes that step, it will be dramatic,” he adds.
BMW says its early investment has given it a two to three-year edge over competitors in understanding how to build a car from carbon fibre materials. On Thursday, it doubled down on its bet, launching a lightweight design centre just outside Munich to employ 160 engineers to rethink how future vehicles can be designed and produced.
“If you put batteries and sensors into the cars, you have to counteract to compensate the additional weight,” says Michael Schuh, head of BMW’s new design centre. “The additional target is to overcompensate, to improve emissions and the agility of the car.”
Once more companies understand composites, the design of cars will be completely rethought — particularly for the advent of self-driving vehicles, says David Hummel, chief executive of Victrex, a British supplier of such materials.
“We are still in the infancy of proving what the material can do,” he adds. “This is the next big frontier.”

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