R&D collaboration designs a lighter automotive front end

October 8, 2009
by Kumar Sadayappan

Lightweight materials technologies play a crucial role in efforts worldwide to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions from automobiles. Most experts agree for every 10% in weight reduction, there is a 7% improvement in fuel efficiency for vehicles powered by internal combustion engines, and a 3% increase in distance travelled on a single charge cycle for electric vehicles and hybrids. Weight reduction improves efficiency and performance for all powertrain platforms. For fuel-powered vehicles, this translates into approximately a 17 to 20-kg reduction of carbon dioxide per kilogram of weight reduction over the lifetime of the car.

Canada is actively involved in lightweight materials R&D. One of the principal research challenges is to develop cost-effective, high-strength materials for automotive applications that do not compromise passenger safety.

Magnesium, the lightest of all engineering metals, is one of the materials that’s used for this purpose. In the past decade, its use in automobiles has doubled. But significant challenges remain, including manufacturability, integration with other materials, durability over the lifetime of the vehicle, and in-service performance.

The Magnesium Front End Research and Development (MFERD ) project is a multi-task research effort involving Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), China’s Ministry of Science and Technology, and the United States Department of Energy. The objective of this five-year undertaking is to develop a magnesium-intensive front end for an automobile.

The first phase of the work, which began in 2007, involves more than 100 research scientists and engineers from the three countries. In Canada, MFERD is jointly funded by NRCan’s Program of Energy R&D and the AUTO21 Network of Centres of Excellence.

NRCan’s CANMET Materials Technology Laboratory (MTL) is the Canadian coordinating organization, and is investigating casting, extrusion and sheet production issues.

As the national automotive research and development program, AUTO21 draws on researchers from across Canada to participate in the MFERD-related projects. AUTO21 currently supports four MFERD tasks.

At the University of Waterloo, researchers are investigating challenges related to the joining of magnesium to magnesium and other materials. A second study on fatigue loading occurring at the University of Waterloo and Ryerson University is examining the performance of magnesium components and joints.

A third project partnering the Université de Sherbrooke, the University of Windsor and the University of Waterloo is evaluating in-service performance of magnesium. Because of the lower density of magnesium compared with steel, an investigation of noise-vibration harshness behaviour is required. The fourth task supported by AUTO21 focuses on solidification behaviour of high-pressure die cast magnesium. This computer modelling task is being carried out at the University of Western Ontario.

During Phase I of the MFERD project, a magnesium-intensive front end was designed that is 38 kilograms lighter (45%) than a typical front-end steel structure. The lighter front end also provides a more even weight distribution between the front and rear axles, which will improve drivability of the vehicle. A demonstration front end will be built and tested during Phase II, which begins in 2010.

Canada, as one of the world’s leading suppliers of automotive parts, has an important stake in R&D that leads to an increase in the use of magnesium and other lightweight materials in automotive applications. Achieving the objective of this five-year research project will help Canadian companies remain globally competitive and reduce emissions from automobiles.

Dr. Kumar Sadayappan is the Acting Program Manager for Vehicle Structural Materials at the CANMET Materials Technology Laboratory (Natural Resources Canada).