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Driving in the nano lane

The automotive industry is being challenged to deliver high quality, cost-effective – and with escalating gasoline prices – more fuel-efficient vehicles that use lighter materials, while at the same time maintaining the high performance levels drivers expect.


June 30, 2011
by Hani Naguib

The automotive industry is being challenged to deliver high quality, cost-effective – and with escalating gasoline prices – more fuel-efficient vehicles that use lighter materials, while at the same time maintaining the high performance levels drivers expect.

More than ever before, there is also a pressing need to improve automotive recyclability and reduce the energy used in production processes. With the European Union mandating recycling standards in consumer products – including automobiles – manufacturers are looking for cost effective, recyclable materials, such as plastic nanocomposites with enhanced mechanical, impact, barrier and heat resistant properties. With ultra-fine phase dimensions, typically a few nanometres, they can be tailored to possess unique properties.

To get a sense of just how miniscule the nano-world is, chitin (a polymer found in insects, crustaceans and plants) has nanowhiskers with a 14-nanometre diameter, which is approximately 10,000 times smaller than a human hair.

Plastic nanocomposites would be alternatives to traditional short-fibre composites such as e-glass and carbon black filled plastics found in the interior trim of an automobile. They impart equal or better mechanical, thermal and electrical properties while using significantly less material. For example, a nanocomposite that’s 5% carbon nanotubes improves tensile strength by 40%.

Mechanically, these materials provide excellent vibration damping and impact protection. Since less polymer is used there’s less material to recycle or dispose of, and less energy is used to produce a part or component.

The polymer polylactide acid that comes from starch-based plants such as corn is compostable.

Because nanocomposites are thermoplastic, they have very little filler (less than 10%), which makes them attractive for recycling (a potential end use is commodity feed stocks for the construction industry). These materials are also compostable and if the infrastructure exists, they could be converted to smaller molecules and consumed by micro-organisms.
Thermally, porous polymer nanocomposites increase stability and the insulation properties of automotive interior panels. Electrically, nanoparticles such as carbon nanotubes enhance electrostatic charge dissipation and electromagnetic shielding. Acoustically, the sound absorption is enhanced at various frequencies for a quieter driving experience.

And when it’s possible to mass-produce these materials many other potentially innovative industrial applications will follow in environmental, transportation, construction and other sectors.

Researchers at the University of Toronto, the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, the University of Calgary, and Concordia University are working together through the AUTO21 Network of Centres of Excellence to address these needs. They’re partnered with Magna Inc., Nova Chemicals Inc. and Dupont to develop new material that will yield high strength and impact-to-weight ratio components could significantly reduce the number of casualties sustained in crashes. And by reducing the environmental impact of vehicles, materials and manufacturing (which minimizes fuel consumption) the Canadian automotive industry will meet the EU’s legislated recycling requirements, thus opening up new markets.

Hani Naguib, University of Toronto, leads the AUTO21 project “Manufacturing and Characterization of Recyclable, Lightweight Polymeric Nanocomposites for Automotive Applications.” Visit www.auto21.ca.