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Composite materials, the automotive sector, and the commitment to sustainability

29 June 2020

Article by Rui Gomes, project manager at INEGI in the area of composite materials.

The search for a balance between economic interest and environmental protection has led to a paradigm shift in all sectors of the industry, the automotive sector being, due to its considerable environmental footprint, perhaps one of the most pressured to adopt "greener” alternatives throughout its value chain.

It is for this reason that today we see a trend of weight reduction in automobiles. The incorporation of cast iron and steel components has given rise to the use of materials such as aluminum, polymers and composites. Lighter materials, which contribute to a reduction in energy consumption associated with their use1.

The use of these materials is undoubtedly increasing. Proof of this is the recent decision by the German brand BMW to integrate carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) technology into the chassis of its Series 7 line. The use of carbon fiber structural elements provides additional rigidity, while reducing the structure weight.

BMW also claims, at this point in time, that carbon fiber production processes are already sufficiently advanced to so that the integration of the material on an "industrial scale” is now viable2.

Technological evolution paves the way for new opportunities

Recent studies show that carbon fiber composites are superior to conventional metal structures in terms of energy absorption by unit weight in a dynamic impact event. And the limitations for which they were known, have been steadily overcome with the evolution of technologies.

The automotive sectors efforts have led to a reduction in the processing time of carbon fiber composites, namely of thermoplastic matrix composites. An important development, since it is one of the main requirements for markets such as the sector.

Added to this, it’s noteworthy that carbon fiber thermoplastic composites reveal additional advantages over their thermoset equivalents, with higher levels of ductility and specific energy absorption. The fact that they are also recyclable is also a huge point in their favor3. Features that make composites an alternative not only viable, but also advantageous in relation to materials considered traditional.

These benefits are increasingly recognized by the industry, and there is a clear commitment to technological innovation to pave the way towards greater sustainability of resources and processes.

INEGI experience drives new developments

This is also the focus of INEGIs work in this field, which has contributed to the advancement of thermoplastic matrix compositing technologies for the automotive sector.

We highlight the partnership with Jaguar Land Rover, in a project called ENLIGHT, which resulted in a prototype of a door for integration in electric vehicles, 40% lighter compared to the aluminum component, the material commonly used.

The LATCH I and LATCH II projects are also noteworthy, namely for the development of a bench head support in thermoplastic composite, 62% lighter than the reference steel component, and a suspension arm reinforced with thermoplastic composites, 40% lighter than the benchmark.

Solutions that present full functionality, and clearly demonstrate the potential of materials and composite structures on the path towards sustainability.

[3] Yarlagadda, S. (2018). Thermoplastic Carbon Fiber Reinforced Body-in-White Structures for Vehicle Crash Application.

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