Editorial Feature

The Road to Lightweight Automotive Engineering with Nanotechnology

The overarching goals of automotive developers are to improve performance and fuel consumption, reduce environmental impact, and increase safety – the factors that most influence consumers’ purchasing decisions.

Image Credit: DigitalPen/Shutterstock.com

Nanotechnology brings the unique physical and chemical characteristics of materials and devices working at the nanoscale of size to bear on vehicle manufacturing. It has automotive applications in lightweight bodies, coatings, mirrors and windows, tires, and efficient engines. 

Nanotechnology

Physical and chemical phenomena operate according to the strange laws of quantum physics at the nanoscale of size (between 0.1 nm and 100 nm).

The development of nanotechnology in the last few decades has led to unprecedented technological enhancements. Photocatalysis is more efficient, optical sensors are more sensitive, and materials are mechanically stronger than has ever been possible before.

Fields as diverse as chemistry, biology, and engineering have benefitted from this revolution in tiny tech. Nanotechnology applications continue to rise in areas like biomedicine, robotics, electronics, and civil engineering. Automotive engineering is no stranger to innovation, and nanotechnology has played a significant part in the industry for the last few years.

Automotive Nanotechnology

Using nanomaterials – materials with at least one dimension on the nanoscale, like thin films or nanotubes – to manufacture vehicles can improve their strength and durability. Meanwhile, nanotechnologies can introduce new methods or tools for manipulating the structures and properties of materials in cars to improve performance.

Some of the highest impact applications of nanotechnology in automotive manufacturing come from the introduction of lightweight nanomaterials for car parts and bodies. Here, relatively high performance, strength, and weight gains can be obtained with relatively little extra investment.

The most widely applied nanotechnology in the automotive industry is nanocoatings, which are advanced coatings with nanoparticles mixed in to impart desirable properties on the final surface.

Due to the high variability of material combinations and mixture ratios in potential nanocoatings, this is also an area where more research is likely to have a significant impact.

Risks of Using Nanotechnology

There are some risks associated with nanotechnology, especially in industrial manufacturing applications, as distinct from experimental or laboratory usages.

Some nanomaterials can be toxic or harmful to living organisms’ health and be potentially dangerous to the health of the wider local ecology. There is an increased risk of run-off or pollution in automotive applications due to the higher intensity of manufacturing processes and the extremely demanding mechanical pressures repetitively put on vehicles and their parts.

For manufacturers, adopting a precise framework and management system helps to reduce these risks. Authorities also have a part to play. They can introduce effective regulations to classify and restrict the use of dangerous nanomaterials based on exposure and toxicity.

These kinds of guidelines and rules also help to drive innovation. Pioneers will be guided to find non-toxic, safe nanotechnology solutions by the overall regulatory framework of the industry.

The performance benefits that nanotechnology presents to automotive engineering are potentially worth these risks, however. Nanotechnology in the automotive industry can improve performance, efficiency, and safety, and these improvements can also make the manufacture and use of vehicles more sustainable.

Applications for Automotive Nanotechnology

Lightweight Bodies

The greatest impact for nanotechnology innovation in automotive engineering may be found in lightweight materials development for vehicle parts. Reducing weight while maintaining or increasing strength makes vehicles lighter, safer, and more fuel-efficient.

Carbon nanotubes (CNTs) and clay nanocomposites with polyamide (PA), Mg, Al, Si, or TiO2 are noted for their strength and lightweight. These nanomaterials also have good thermal properties, meaning that they can withstand the long-term rigors of daily operation in a vehicle.

Coatings

The most widely used nanotechnology in automotive engineering involves applying nanocoating to improve the surface features of materials and parts.

Incorporating nanoparticles with polymer coatings improves scratch resistance as well as wear resistance from repeated expected friction. Adding nano-SiO2 to a polymer coating is a well-established route, while SiC, ZrO2, ZnO, Al2O3, and TiO2 have all also been used in this application.

Mirrors and Windows

Adding a thin film layer (below 100 nm thick) of aluminum oxide to glass surfaces on mirrors and windows in vehicles is a widely used method for enhancing comfort, safety, and security.

Thin-film reflective mirrors reduce the effects of glare from sunlight in the day and other vehicles’ headlights at night. A thin film of Al2O3, deposited with a chemical vapor deposition (CVD) technique, can create a hydrophobic and oleophobic surface for windows and mirrors, keeping water and dust off the surfaces.

Tires

Adding appropriate nanoparticles to rubber composites in tires can improve their safety and durability. Adding Al2O3 to tire rubber enhances wear resistance, while including carbon black (60 phr) in the mixture drastically improves wear resistance. Some studies have found that tires’ wear rate is improved by as much as 800% with the right addition of nanomaterials in the composite mix.

Continue reading: G+BOARD: How Graphene is Targeting and Changing the Future of the Automotive Industry.

References and Further Reading

Shafique, M., and X. Luo (2019) Nanotechnology in Transportation Vehicles: An Overview of Its Applications, Environmental, Health and Safety Concerns. Materials. Available at: https://www.doi.org/10.3390/ma12152493

Soutter, W. (2012) Nanotechnology in the Automotive Industry. [online] AZoNano. Available at: https://www.azonano.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=3031

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Ben Pilkington

Written by

Ben Pilkington

Ben Pilkington is a freelance writer who is interested in society and technology. He enjoys learning how the latest scientific developments can affect us and imagining what will be possible in the future. Since completing graduate studies at Oxford University in 2016, Ben has reported on developments in computer software, the UK technology industry, digital rights and privacy, industrial automation, IoT, AI, additive manufacturing, sustainability, and clean technology.

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