How plastics are increasing vehicle efficiency 

Plastics used throughout vehicles for efficiencies

The global automotive plastics market is set to exceed $50bn (€41.8bn) by 2024 due to consumer demand for lightweight vehicles.

Research published by Global Markets Insight found that consumers want lightweight and fuel-efficient cars, which would stimulate the demand for automotive plastics. The report went on to reveal that in Germany, the PVC-based automotive plastics market demand is likely to surpass $1.9bn. These materials are mainly used in underbody coatings, sealants, door panels, seating, dashboards, arm rests, window sealing profiles, weather strips, and body side protection.

The automotive plastics market in the UK is expected to grow by about 9% due to the demand for polypropylene, which is used widely in cable insulation, carpets, battery boxes and bumpers.

Why plastics?

Each pound of plastics and plastics composites in a vehicle typically replaces two to three pounds of other, heavier materials, according to the American Chemistry Council. As a result, plastics help to reduce vehicle weight, which in turn improves fuel efficiency and reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Already, cars are made up of almost 50% plastic materials, but only account for 10% of the weight of the vehicles. The average car uses about 200kg of plastics. 

This is a necessity for U.S. carmakers. A study by the Department of Energy found that reducing a vehicle’s weight by 10% can increase its fuel economy by 5-7%. U.S. carmakers will be relying more on plastics and plastic composites to reduce the weight of the cars they produce in order to meet the U.S. government demand for 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

Plastic improves performance

“Few innovations provide a more wide-ranging performance and efficiency advantage than reducing weight. All factors of a vehicle’s capabilities—acceleration, handling, braking, safety, efficiency—can improve through the use of advanced, lighter materials.” - Ford

The versatility of plastics means it plays a key role in vehicles. The efficiency the material offers is not limited to fuel consumption, but overall performance. For example, plastics used in housings for electronics and braking systems and plastic fuel tanks protect against corrosion from dirt, salt, and road chemicals. This makes the parts more efficient in their performance– they’re more reliable and have a longer lifespan.

Carbon fibre-reinforced plastics (CFRP) has long been used in race cars due to their strength and light weight. For the same reasons, they’re now used in production vehicles.

Ford’s concept car, the GT, relies on CFRPs.

The seventh generation of the American classic Chevy Corvette Stingray appeared on the scene in 2014, this time with a CFRP bonnet and roof assemblies, which took off seven pounds in the weight of the roof alone.

BMW also joined the game in using CFRP when they constructed the passenger compartment for its first electric vehicles. The weight they saved offset the weight of the high-voltage lithium-ion battery that powers the car.

The versatility of plastic

Plastics are used in just about every area of a vehicle, while improving its performance. Other uses include:

  • Body panels & bumpers: Plastic body panels and front and rear bumpers are designed to absorb impact energy in a crash, minimising the impact on the vehicle’s occupants. These plastic structures can weigh as much as 50% less while absorbing four to five times more energy than steel or aluminium.
  • Windows & headlights: Plastic is giving drivers greater visibility while enhancing design options. A thin layer of plastic sandwiched between two layers of glass makes windscreens shatter-resistant. This thin, plastic layer is lighter and stronger than tempered glass. Plastic also makes headlights lighter and more shatter-resistant.
  • Paint film: 15 times thicker than traditional paint, plastic paint film is more resistant to scratches, chips, and UV degradations. It retains a high-gloss shine far longer than traditional paint.
  • Safety features: Seat belts and air bags are made of lightweight materials such as tough, tear-resistant nylon to help protect occupants in the event of a collision.
  • Powertrain & Chassis: Other than the benefits of corrosion resistance, a plastic fuel tank has another advantage when it comes to safety. It can be manufactured as a one-piece part without soldered seams. The lack of seams means it doesn’t fail on impact.

What’s coming in plastics:

Look for plastics to become even more lightweight.

Researchers at New York University, in collaboration with the National Institute of Technology-Karnataka in India, have developed a process to make cheaper, lighter-weight syntactic foams on an industrial scale. This will likely lead to more efficient, less costly vehicles.

Syntactic foams are strong, incredibly light materials made of plastic perfused with hollow microspheres. It’s used in buoys, boat hulls – even solid rocket boosters. They’ve been used for years in the aerospace industry. (In other words, they’re popular in industries that don’t mass produce.) The advantage: they weigh less than moulded plastic components.

By achieving a 36% weight reduction in these plastics while improving mechanical properties, the researchers have been able to make components lighter and cheaper.

“At laboratory scale, when you are mixing components in a flask, you can be careful and minimize damage,” says Nikhil Gupta, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at New York University. “But at an industrial scale, producers have to make large quantities of material quickly, because time is money. Thus, breakage of these particles becomes much more problematic.”

To address this issue, researchers developed parameters for use by small-scale manufacturers with industrial injection moulding machines. They turned to India’s abundance of operators who use plastic moulding equipment to test the concepts. The team then collaborated with the manufacturers to fine-tune mixing parameters.

The research team is now casting prototype components and testing them in real applications.

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