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Car manufacturers see a future in lightweight plastics

The amount of plastic part use in the car industry is growing. Car manufacturers are aware of all of the benefits that lightweight, easily malleable material offers

Car manufacturers see a future in lightweight plastics
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Within the past decade, the automotive industry has made huge strides and created numerous technical wonders. Comfort seating gives the impression of a living room couch and riding in modern vehicles demands minimal physical exertion. This goes hand in hand with a wide variety of safety assistants, whose operating systems often have a much faster reaction time than a driver’s brain. Although auto makers around the world introduce amazing new technologies every year, their fundamental goal is to find a way to lower gasoline consumption by at least another tenth.

With this goal in mind, they are making a concerted effort to lighten new models as much as possible. That has a positive impact on not only safety and environmental consciousness; affordability for consumers is being addressed as well. Plastic materials have been the technological hit of the last few years thanks to their outstanding lightness and durability. Advanced materials include plastics that are reinforced with carbon fibers.

Can you guess which car parts are made from plastic materials? Approximately half of all automobile parts are made out of plastic! Two fundamental raw materials stand at the onset of nearly all plastic car parts- polyethylene and polypropylene.

The gasoline tank and heating/cooling air distributors are made out of polyethylene and other plastic car parts, i.e. operational liquid containers, carpet flooring, interior upholstery, the instrument panel carrier, the pedal carrier and dashboard or lightweight impact and noise insulation materials all owe their existence to polypropylene. Just like exterior plastic parts such as headlamps, fenders and bumpers.

Although a large amount of modern cars is made out of plastic materials, in reality plastic only forms only 10% of overall vehicle mass. That’s because plastic materials are significantly lighter than other commonly used materials. In upcoming years, the amount of plastic material usage in vehicle manufacturing is sure to increase significantly. 

While in the year 2014 plastics made up roughly 200 kilograms of a vehicle’s overall mass, according to analysts at IHS Chemical of Englewood, Colorado, plastic mass will reach up to 350 kilograms by 2020- a 75 percent increase. By 2030, this value will most likely triple. There are several reasons behind this jump.

Lower mass

This comes down to a law of physics- lighter cars require less energy to run, a fact that also becomes clear based on the lower amount of energy they require for constant speed maintenance. At the same time, fuel consumption is lowered. Scientists from the USA energy department presented study results showing that lowering vehicle mass by 10% lowers fuel consumption by 6 to 8%. That benefits not only the customer, but the environment as well.

Using carbon fiber plastics

In years past, combining plastic materials with carbon fibers was the basis for lightweight racing vehicles. Today, designers are using CFRPs in design proposals for regular passenger vehicles. This carbon fiber reinforced plastic played an important part in the development of the sports car Ford GT and this American automaker will use the same material in ordinary vehicle manufacture in the future.

BMW used CFRP materials to lower the mass of their first electric vehicles, which compensated for the high mass of high tension lithium-ion accumulators. Every kilogram saved in such a manner increased the final driving range of electricity fueled vehicles.

Lowering CO2 emissions

Heavy pressure for environmental protection is inevitable. European emission standards will lower the permissible amount of carbon dioxide from the current below 130g/km levels to 95g/km by 2020. It is expected that more extensive plastic material use in vehicle construction will help manufacturers meet these norms.

Plastics will help ensure safety

Not only do plastics and plastic based composites help remove unnecessary kilograms, they also play a key role in passive vehicle safety. Front and back bumpers made from plastic absorb kinetic energy in the event of an accident, which helps minimize the level of danger for onboard passengers.

Vehicle rooftops are insulated with foam which strengthens roof structure and prevents it from collapsing if the car flips over. Fuel tanks are made from one-piece cast forms, which prevent fissuring. Furthermore, plastic fuel tanks cannot corrode and this significantly increases their lifespan.

3D printing technology will make vehicles recyclable

Manufacturing automobile parts with 3D technology is no longer just a part of the distant future. This manufacturing model has multiple advantages such as speed, customizability and increased sustainability.

Large auto manufacturers are already using 3D printers to create prototypes, so as to be able to introduce new models on the market quicker. Some companies can even manufacture an entire car out of 3D printed materials. The company Divergent 3D introduced an innovative approach with their NODE technology. In mere minutes, this technology is able to create an industrial strength undercarriage out of carbon fibers.