Ahmed Elmarakbi, professor of automotive composites at the University, is leading Task 10.11 – Composites for Automotive, part of the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technology Flagship. The project is exploring how Graphene, which is just one atom thick and a million times thinner than human hair, could be used to create lighter, stronger, safer and more energy-efficient vehicles revolutionising the global car industry.
Sunderland, leading a consortium of five research partners from Italy, Spain and Germany, over the last two years has been conducting a series of tests with support from Centro Ricerche CRF of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, analysing the properties of Graphene to determine how it behaves when used to enhance the advanced composite materials in vehicle production.
Taking the bumper of the car, Graphene was embedded into a polymer and mixed with traditional carbon fibre or glass fibre structural material, which led to changes in its properties, making it lighter, stronger and tougher, allowing the researchers to reduce the thickness of the structural components.
Mr Elmarakbi explained: “The results we discovered in the first stages are significant; we achieved a lot more than we ever anticipated. The material is very light and very strong and the impact testing we did showed a 40% higher specific energy absorption than in traditional composite materials.
“It’s also more stable – it’s a controlled fracture when you hit it, even at a higher velocity, it absorbs the energy in a controlled way. We expected this at the beginning but did not expect the results to be this high.”
The prize will be new lightweight components for vehicles which will lead to significantly lower fuel consumption and emissions.
However, Mr Elmarakbi says there are still challenges to be overcome. First, there are difficulties in the applying Graphene - which is only a few-layers thick – as the thicker it’s applied the more brittle it becomes, like graphite.
Secondly it’s difficult to uniformly disperse the Graphene in the polymer.
Mr Elmarakbi continued: “Getting the right balance between the Graphene and the polymer is crucial. The composite cannot be too weak, or so strong that it’s unable to absorb energy in the event of a collision. Modern cars are designed to crumple in a crash – protecting the passengers – whereas a composite that is too strong would transfer energy to the car’s passengers, compromising their safety.
“We have a very good uniform dispersion now, but it’s not an easy task. We need to make it lightweight and at the same time very safe.
“Part of the challenge in reaching this point has been that it’s all new, nothing exists and everything we’re doing is a first. We’ve even had to design the software to simulate the Graphene applications from scratch.”
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