February 1, 2006 New materials for car bodies may soon transform the auto industry. Auto engineers can mold these carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics into virtually any shape. The materials are both strong and light -- increasing fuel efficiency and safety at the same time.
TROY, Mich.-- Cars built entirely out of plastic could be the wave of the future, making metal a thing of the past when it comes to cars.
New, innovative cars made almost entirely of plastic are paving the way for what you may be driving in the future. Guan Chew, a mechanical engineer at Porsche Engineering Services in Troy, Mich., says, "With plastics you can design cars which are very bold, and that gives you an advantage to sell nicer cars."
Plastics have gained a lot of ground over traditional metals used in cars, making it possible to build almost an entire vehicle completely of non-metal material. Paul Ritchie, CEO and engineer at Porsche Engineering Services, says: "The Carrera GT is what we would refer to as a proving ground for one of our new materials. It's made essentially from reinforced plastic."
Mechanical engineers use a lightweight, high-strength aerospace material called carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. It's used in the doors, hoods, fenders, chasis and also in support frames for the engine and transmission.
"You can mold the plastics into very complicated shapes that maybe you can't do in steel," Chew says. Looks aren't the only perks of plastic; plastics help cars lose weight to go farther on fuel.
New materials, like plastic, are usually tested on high-end vehicles first. Once the materials are proven to be more efficient and cost effective, they eventually filter down to affordable consumer vehicles.
BACKGROUND: Student designers at the College for Creative Studies are creating new plastic polymer materials as alternatives for automobile elements typically made of steel. The designs were part of a semester-long project sponsored by the American Plastics Council and the automotive division of the Society of Plastics Engineers.
ADVANTAGES: Among other advantages, plastics can significantly reduce the weight of a vehicle, improving fuel efficiency by reducing drag, and also cutting down on emissions. Because plastic can be more easily molded, components can be tailored for more comfortable human-ergonomic features, as well as more streamlined, aerodynamic shapes. Less material can be used than with steel components, and the durability of plastics results in a longer, more reliable vehicle lifetime.
ABOUT PLASTICS: Plastics are a type of polymer, a chemical substance made up of many very large, chain-shaped molecules. These molecules in turn form thousands of repeating units, much like the links in a chain. Different plastics are made by linking together different monomers into different length chains. Mixing polymers with various additives gives them many useful properties, which is why plastics are used so often in our everyday lives. Thermoplastics soften with heat and harden when cooled, such as polyvinylchloride (PVC) and Teflon. They are used in food packaging, milk and water bottles, electrical insulation, carpet fibers, and credit cards, among other applications. Thermosetting plastics harden with heat, such as epoxy and polyester. They can be found in mattresses, cushions, varnishes, glues, and coatings on electrical circuits.
MAKE YOUR OWN PLASTIC! Most plastics derive from oil (petroleum) but you can create the same kind of linked molecules with milk. (1) Pour 1/2 cup milk or heavy cream into a saucepan and heat to simmering over low to medium heat. (2) Stir in a few spoonfuls of vinegar or lemon juice; continue adding until mixture starts to gel. (3) Remove pan from heat and cool, then rinse the rubbery curds with water. The curds are plastic, formed by the chemical reaction between the casein in the milk and the acid in the vinegar or lemon juice.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.