Materials Science

Let’s drive forward to the future

By Dr Marcus Remmers, Chief Technology Officer, Royal DSM

From electric vehicles to bio-based materials and autonomous driving, the car industry is undergoing a dramatic transformation – and smart chemicals technology is leading the way…


Did you know that car manufacturer Henry Fordwas fascinated by the soybean? During the Great Depression, he spent hour after hour in his laboratory trying to turn this bean into more affordable plastic to lower the price of his Model T car.By 1941, Ford had developed a handmade car with a plastic body, made completely from plant material. One reporter at the time described it as ‘part salad, part automobile’.


Unfortunately, as is often the case when commercializing plant-based materials, the Ford Motor Company was never able to produce soybean-based plastics that could compete with petroleum-based equivalents on performance. Fair enough – we all know that it’s not only sustainability that matters in the car industry.The durability, strength and heat resistance of the materials is equally important. But now,with technological advances unlocking higher and higher bio-based plastic performance, manufacturing industries should no longer view these bio-based materials with a suspicious eye – we might well be closer to achieving Ford’s dream after all.


A rapidly evolving industry


Around the world, the car industry is changing shape before our eyes. Emission reduction targets are speeding up the transition from traditional combustion engines to electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicles.The need for greater circularity is adding pressure to find materials and manufacturing processes that allow for better recycling. On top of this, there is increased demand for connectivity to support trends such as autonomous driving. And, of course, vehicles still need to deliver reliable performance.


Chemical companies are at the heart of this transformation – for example, DSM.This company uses its materials expertise to deliver several solutions to help OEMs meet these challenges – or even turn them into opportunities. Specifically, DSM’s solutions deliver the low weight, durability and sustainability that manufacturers need, without compromising reliability, safety, or performance. These materials can help address three of the biggest automotive challenges: powering the car of the future, manufacturing the car of the future,and connecting the car of the future.


Powering the car of the future


The world faces a series of urgent environmental challenges. Car emissions, in particular, are one of the biggest contributors to climate change. And, as vehicle production continues to increase, the impact of these emissions will only multiply. To turn the tide, the automotive industry needs to look for more sustainable alternatives – particularly when it comes to power.


One way to reduce the environmental footprint of cars is to change from traditional combustion engines to (hybrid) electric- and hydrogen-powered vehicles. Today, this transition is already well underway. We’ve all seen that more and more of the latest models hitting the showrooms are hybrids, combining internal combustion engines with high-voltage electromotors and batteries. And 100% battery-powered vehicles are also continuing to grow in popularity.


While these high-performance, low-footprint vehicles bring many benefits, they also present challenges. Take electric vehicles powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. These vehicles refuel in the same time as conventional cars, go further on a single tankful than the maximum range of current lithium-ion technology, and emit H2O instead of CO2. All great advantages – butOEMs for these vehicles face the challenge of safely harnessing a highly explosive pressurized gas bottle.


To address challenges like this, DSM offers a range of solutions – for fully electrical vehicles with hydrogen fuel cells or lithium-ion batteries, for biofuel, and for hybrid technology. For instance, when it comes to hydrogen fuel cells, DSM applies its expertise in high-performance barrier and uni-directional tape materials to develop safe, effective, and ultra-lightweight hydrogen tanks from its engineering materials.


Solar: a viable alternative energy source?


But with electric vehicles growing in popularity, how can we source all that electricitysustainably? As we all know, in many industries,the transition to solar energy is well underway. Solar-powered buildings, for instance, are becoming mainstream. But what about solar-powered cars? For a long time, people have been – and still are – sceptical of this technology’s ability to fuel the cars of the future.


For DSM, this is a challenge that was embraced a long time ago. The company regularly supports scientists pushing boundaries in solar, such as the Delft University of Technology team in the Bridgestone World Solar Challenge. Traveling 3,000 km from Darwin to Adelaide with a solar-powered car, these students relied on DSM’s solar expertise– as well as its light, strong engineering materials. And with success: the team has won seven times.


Of course, fueling the cars of the future is a much bigger task – but DSM is also taking the next steps towards more commercial solutions. Specifically, the company partners with Lightyear, the manufacturer of Lightyear One. This fully electric car has a solar roof and hood – comprising five square meters of integrated solar cells within safety glass – and can travel up to 725 kilometres on a fully charged battery. The partnership now wants to scale up this unique solar-powered roof and accelerate the global adoption of electric vehicles. Developments like this demonstrate that, with the right materials and support, solar energy and alternative fuels can definitely drive the cars of the future.


Manufacturing the car of the future


But it’s not just automotive emissions that affect the environment. When it comes to manufacturing, the automotive industry has traditionally relied on scarce, fossil-based raw materials such as precious metals. Indeed, the automotive industry uses more lead than any other sector, yet experts forecast that lead reserves will run out by 2030. More renewable solutions are needed. And, with the pressing need for greater circularity, manufacturers must also look for new opportunities to repurpose, reuse, or recycle theirmaterials.


One example of this is ‘closed-loop recycling’ of materials from end-of-life vehicles, which are then used to manufacture new vehicle bodies and parts – an alreadycommon process. However, given the additional need to reduce weight (to reduce CO2 emissions), car manufacturers will also need more lightweight materials, such as high-performance plastics. This offers an opportunity to introduce bio-based plastics, which are more recyclable than fossil-based equivalents.


DSM’s history in materials science, world-class R&D facilities, and the company’s global network of materials scientists give it the special opportunity to help its customers make this transition happen. For instance, DSM Engineering Materials has committed to developing and rolling out a complete portfolio of bio-basedand/or recycled-based alternatives by 2030. The alternative portfolio will contain at least 25% recycled or bio-based content, measured by weight in the final product.


Importantly, all of the renewable or recycled-based productsin this portfolio will deliver the same functional performance as their conventional counterparts, and will not require any special handling equipment or tooling. So, when it comes to the materials used in the car of the future, we might be close to achieving Ford’s bio-based dream.


Additive Manufacturing: rethinking automotive design


Besides the need for more renewable and recycled-based materials, car manufacturers are also facing the pressure of bringing cars to market faster and at lower cost than ever. This means that design concepts and prototypes need to be produced faster, more efficiently, and cost-effectively.


The solution might just be Additive Manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing. The rate of progress in AM is little short of staggering: in just a few years, it has become a major disruptive technology set to turn industrial manufacturing upside down. No more expensive and time-consuming injection moulding to produce small series, spare parts, and tooling. Instead, additive manufacturing can now produce components that are indistinguishable from traditionally produced thermoplastics – in less time, with less waste, and at lower cost.


The practical implications of this are enormous. For instance, currently, car makers must hold significant stocks of all sorts of spare parts for a minimum of ten years. This is expensive and unwieldy. Major companies and their distributors have warehouse shelves stretching for countless miles holding components that may never be called for. With AM, those components could be produced only when they are needed – anywhere in the world.


But AM can also have major advantages for niche players. Take Briggs Automotive Company (BAC), a car manufacturer that builds limited-edition, personalized supercars. BAC was able to shorten production times and cut the cost of part production by more than 50% using 3D printing technology. DSM collaborated with BAC to transform the manufacturing process of its Mono R model, resulting in lightweight, high-performance, custom-made parts.


But how well do DSM’s AM materials perform? In fact, its printing materials are toughly tested in Formula 1 vehicles. AM allows teams to quickly test different design concepts,as multiple design variations can now be built at the same time, reducing product development cycles. On top of that, new computer-aided engineering technology helps DSM test materials in the lab. Predictive modeling,for example,can simulate parts’ performance under stress even before printing. Indeed, DSM’s collaboration with e-Xstream on predictive fatigue modeling for reinforced polyamide parts will substantially reduce the need for material testing and design iterations.


AM could also become invaluable in personalizing cars. Mass customization is already here, with buyers choosing colour, engine size and type, interior trim, and ‘infotainment’ systems, but they still have to select these from a relatively limited set of options. With AM, customers can build truly unique cars at only moderate extra cost. For example, BMW’s ‘Mini Yours Customize’ car lets Mini users personalize exterior indicator inlays, passenger-side interior trim, LED door sills, and door projectors, all with a mobile app. These parts are then produced at BMW’s Additive Manufacturing Center in Germany.


Making refinishes more efficient


But that’s not all there is to manufacturing. Did you know that the most energy-intensive (and cost-intensive) process in car manufacturing is the painting of the car? The best car refinishes are efficient, sustainable, and durable. But this means that, traditionally, they consist of multiple layers, each with multiple properties and often based on a variety of resins.


Unless, of course, you open up DSM’s scientific toolbox. Indeed, DSM’s scientists have found a way to develop high-end car refinishes with excellent adhesion and hardness while enabling car manufacturers to reduce the spray booth cycle time from 30 to 15 minutes at 60°C, ready to polish after cooling down. In normal conditions, this represents a productivity increase of about 20%. In other words, with smart refinishes, additive manufacturing and bio-based materials, we’re on the road to redesigning not just the car, but the entire automotive industry.


Connecting the car of the future


Finally, when it comes to connecting the car of the future, the move towards connectivity in the automotive world might just be as big as the transition to greener cars. We’re seeing new standards for car usability, with autonomous driving being the most obvious. Meeting the extreme demands of these next-generation cars requires designers to re-think and reimagine what’s possible, as we see two entirely different industries – automotive and electronics – converge.


You may have heard of ‘thinnovation’– the trend for making working parts in electronic devices such as mobile phones smaller, lighter, greener, and safer.The materials supplied by companies like DSM are used to create these components. Tomorrow, these same materials (and their descendants) will do a similar job in cars, as we discover smart new ways to integrate electronics into plastic materials. With knowledge and experience of both mobile phones and automotive applications, DSM is well placed to connect with partners worldwide to create something truly remarkable.


Green cars for all


Above all, to enable these automotive industry transformations, OEMs will need suppliers that don’t just understand materials, but also application challenges.DSM’s approach is set to lead the way: dedicated R&D teams work closely with industry experts and engineers to look at the entire process of developing new parts and components – from design and material performance to production and compliance. With this kind of collaborative approach, parties across the automotive value chain can build a brighter future for the car industry– a future where mobility does not harm the world around us. More than ever, it’s time to deliver on Ford’s pioneering vision, and make green cars available for all!


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