Fiber material

Clemson Corner: SUVs could soon go on a carbon fiber diet

SUV tip the scales at around 4,000 pounds, but they could soon lose weight with the help of a national team led by a Clemson University automotive engineer.

A lighter vehicle requires less energy to move. The idea is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned in gasoline and diesel vehicles and increase the range of electric vehicles.

The team is launching new research aimed at knocking at least 160 pounds off an SUV while keeping it affordable and ensuring automakers can mass-produce it without retooling their facilities.

To fund the project, the researchers are receiving $5.75 million from the US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Vehicles Technology Office. Various partners will share the costs, bringing the total planned funding to $11.5 million. The team will focus on what looks like the skeleton of the SUV and is interchangeably called the “glider” or “the body-in-white”.

Much of the challenge will be incorporating a wide range of materials, including various metals and carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites, and finding the best way to join them together.

The principal researcher of the project is Pilla of Srikanth, the endowed Professor Jenkins of automotive engineering and founding director of Clemson Composites Center.

“The main question we’re trying to answer is, ‘Are there technologies that we can bring together and come up with an integrated concept where we can lighten a body-in-white?'” Pilla said. “If we remove 160 pounds, it will save energy and help decarbonise.”

The researchers want to achieve their weight saving goal without increasing the cost of the paraglider by more than $5 for every pound saved. They also strive to ensure that manufacturers would be able to manufacture 200,000 gliders per year without major retooling or investment in capital equipment. The team will use a glider from a 2019 Honda Pilot for the study, but the results should apply to a wide range of vehicles.

While automotive components made from carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites are light and strong, their incorporation into vehicles often requires costly changes to how vehicles are manufactured. One of the project’s collaborators, Marcelo Dapino, has worked on this challenge and will contribute his technological advances to the new research. Dapino said his lab had previously worked with Honda to develop technology to join carbon fiber to metal.

“We can create carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer structures with metal tabs or attachment points,” said Dapino, Honda Designated Chair of Engineering at Ohio State University. “These metal tabs allow the carbon fiber structure to be welded to the rest of the vehicle. The main benefit for Honda and automakers in general is that they can spot weld carbon fiber structures to the rest of the vehicle without changing the manufacturing plant infrastructure.

Ryan Hahnlen, principal research engineer at Honda Development and Manufacturing of America, said that for the new project, Honda will provide a mass production vehicle, performance targets and guidance to researchers. It will be important to ensure that the new design does not compromise the performance of the current design and that the new design can be integrated into existing production environments.

While automotive components made from carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites are light and strong, their incorporation into vehicles often requires costly changes to how vehicles are manufactured.


“This project provides the opportunity to look at the structure of the vehicle holistically,” Hahnlen said. “It also allows us to take full advantage of the properties of composites while improving cost and manufacturability aspects. I am very excited to take advanced materials and methods that have demonstrated benefits at the part and system level research applications and apply them at the full vehicle scale to better understand their full potential benefits.

Gang Li, Professor of mechanical Engineering at Clemson, will create a digital lifecycle for the glider. As part of the digital lifecycle, researchers will use advanced modeling techniques to reproduce on computers what happens in the physical world.

“We’re looking at the physics at every step, from manufacturing to actual performance on the road,” Li said. “We’ll also be looking at the structure. We will examine the microstructures of the material and understand how these microstructures will affect the properties and performance of the material in the actual product. »

This approach will save money and speed up development and optimization of the glider, Li said. Digital testing can be done cheaper and faster than physical component testing.

Research team members come from eight organizations in addition to Clemson, Ohio State and Honda. These are: MSC Software Corporation, Altair Engineering, Moldex3D North America, Inc., Siemens USA, Proper Tooling, Carbon Conversions, Huntsman Advanced Materials and ZOLTEK Corporation.

Clemson Corner is a bimonthly column on all things Clemson University. Whether it’s individuals reaching new heights, research breakthroughs and discoveries, or events that can bring us all together, you’ll be able to learn more about the people who make Clemson, Greenville and Carolina South such a special place.