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Jun 23

Light Materials For Safer, More Fuel-Efficient Cars

Due to tougher emission and fuel economy standards that are aimed at reducing air pollution, automakers are forced to find new ways for cutting fuel consumption. One of the key factors that affect a vehicle’s fuel economy is weight, given that the more a vehicle weighs, the harder its engine has to work, burning more fuel to keep the car moving. According to the EPA, by reducing a car’s weight by 100 pounds, its efficiency is increased by about 2%. The auto industry has been testing all sorts of materials for lighter, more efficient cars, to replace steel, which is currently the predominant material in vehicle production.

Some automakers have gone to extreme measures to keep their cars as lightweight as possible, such as Ford, which recently announced that it is contemplating the idea of making certain parts out of tomato skin, but most of them have been focused on more traditional materials, such as aluminum, carbon fiber, and most recently, magnesium. Lately, Ford has been one of the companies that have been quite open to the idea of increasingly the use of aluminum in the production process. The American car maker plans to give the new F-150 pickup truck a body made predominantly out of aluminum, cutting its weight by as much as 700 pounds, and has made a Ford Fusion concept that is 25% lighter than the current version by using carbon fiber, magnesium, and high-strength steel in addition to aluminum.

However, while aluminum, as well as carbon fiber, can certainly help make cars lighter, there are a lot of challenges that need to be overcome before they can be used in the manufacturing process on a larger scale. For one thing, they are much more expensive than steel, with aluminum costing roughly 30 percent more than steel, and carbon fiber costing about $16/pound, which means that using these materials in vehicle production is not economically viable. Furthermore, making certain parts out of aluminum can be pretty challenging, as it’s a metal that is difficult to form and weld, but automakers could solve this issue by adjusting their production process accordingly, giving workers the proper training for handling and forming aluminum, and employing different machinery.

Carbon fiber has more or less the same drawbacks, given that even though it’s more flexible, making certain parts out of carbon fiber is a time-consuming process, and mass producing a car made largely from carbon fiber will not be financially feasible for most companies until the material becomes 2-3 times cheaper than it is now. Be that as it may, BMW has made a significant progress in this regard, by starting production of the i3 compact car that has a body made entirely out of carbon fiber, proving that using the material in large-volume production can be viable.

In any case, efforts for slashing vehicle weight through the use of alternative materials will continue in the future, further reducing steel’s share in vehicles, which will result in improved fuel economy, and improved results at vehicle emission testings.

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