February 1, 2006 New plastics may soon replace metals in auto bodies. Designers are beginning to discover a whole new world of possibilities offered by materials that can be bent into futuristic shapes.
- Energy and Resources
- Fuel Cells
- Energy Technology
- Automotive and Transportation
DETROIT--Imaginations are let loose on car designs of the future. Now, young, creative minds are pushing automotive design to its limits, using every shape, color and size in their creations.
Designers and engineers who take their dreams and turn them into reality create these new cars of the future.
Chris Piscitelli's zest for cars started when he was just a kid. "My father is an old car enthusiast, so I grew up around it." Piscitelli is a design student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. As he got older, he learned his love of cars could be linked with his artistic talent.
"I have a passion for cars and design, so it was just natural for me to get into automotive design," Piscitelli says.
Now, Chris is part of a future generation of car designers learning to put new materials to use in exciting, futuristic ways. "We're supposed to stress the use of a lot of the new plastics and things that you do with plastics that you couldn't necessarily do with say, you know, steel," Piscitelli tells Ivanhoe.
Plastic is easy to mold so using materials engineering, Chris used the advantages of plastic by heating it so the long, spaghetti-like molecules slide over each other to form new shapes, giving us durable, cost-effective, lightweight plastics with sleek curves.
Jim Kolb, vice president of American Plastics Council in Troy says, "The limitations that some metals have in forming parts -- are overcome with the use of plastics."
Plastic concepts have caught the eye of car companies who see the future of car design in students like Piscitelli. "We're able to push the limit with the project, and so to make something that was, you know, kind of futuristic and, you know, out there, but also could be seen on the road," Piscitelli says. His concept car may not be road-ready right now, but it's a nice sneak peak at what the future holds.
Car manufacturers are working to make affordable plastic cars available to consumers.
BACKGROUND: Porsche's Carrera GT carries a $440,795 price tag, but that's not the only special feature that makes it a high-end niche model. It is also composed entirely of plastic hybrid materials, meeting industry standards while improving on safety, body strength, and load-bearing capability. It's the latest development in an ongoing effort to incorporate more lightweight plastic materials into the automotive industry, along with other energy-efficient technologies such as fuel cells and hybrid power systems.
HOW FUEL CELLS WORK: Much like a battery, a fuel cell draws energy from chemical reactions. Specifically, it converts hydrogen and oxygen into water, producing electricity in the process. This can then be used to power motors, lights, or electrical appliances. Chemicals constantly flow into the fuel cell, so it never goes dead. If a fuel cell is powered with pure hydrogen, it will convert 80 percent of its energy into electricity, so it is a very attractive option for automotive manufacturers seeking better fuel efficiencies. A standard gasoline-powered car isn't very energy efficient: only about 20 percent of the content of the gas is converted into usable energy. However, hydrogen is difficult to store, so most fuel cell prototypes convert methanol into hydrogen as an initial step. This reduces overall efficiency to 30 percent-40 percent.
WHAT ARE HYBRIDS: Gasoline-powered cars are the most common type, and there are some battery-powered electric cars available today. A hybrid vehicle is a combination of the two, attempting to reap the best of both approaches. For example, the Honda Insight has a gasoline engine to provide most of the car's power, in combination with an electric motor to add extra power as needed for acceleration. The electric motor can double as a generator while braking and only has to run part of the time. One disadvantage is that the gasoline engine must therefore run at varying speeds, which reduces its energy efficiency.
WHAT IS CAD: A computer-aided design system combines hardware and software to enable the user to design everything from furniture to cars and airplanes. The user can view a design from any angle and zoom in or out for close-up or long-distance views. CAD systems typically rely on a combination of a keyboard and conventional mouse to control what's on the screen.
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.