Sometime in the mid-1990s, when Katrina Cornish was living in California and working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she saw a load of freshly picked tomatoes in a hopper being transported from a farm on the back of a truck.
Cornish, who has a doctorate in plant biology from the University of Birmingham in England, did not view that load of tomatoes as most people would. She wondered instead about the tomatoes on the bottom of the container and realized that the skins would have to be pretty tough to handle that much stress.
Flash forward nearly a quarter-century. Cornish is now a professor at Ohio State University and an international authority on alternative natural rubber production, properties and products, as well as rubber biosynthesis. She never forgot those tomatoes, and because of her pioneering research, it's very possible that tomato skins could end up in your next car.
Tomato skins could replace a portion of the environmentally dirty carbon black found in the rubber used in suspension bushings, motor mounts, tires, hoses and elsewhere on the car.
"Tomatoes grown for food processing have been bred to be the same size, pretty much," said Cornish. "And it just struck me that they also must have really tough peels because the one at the bottom isn't getting squashed by the 500 sitting on its head. Well, what sort of properties do you want in a reinforcing filler? You want something that's really tough and strong. So that's why I looked at the tomato peel."
Eggshells also could replace a portion of carbon black. Cornish asked businesses to send garbage bags of their industrial waste to her lab. Sifting through that, she discovered that eggshells ground into a fine powder also might work as a reinforcing agent in carbon black.
OSU researchers, working with colleagues at supplier Tenneco and at least one major automaker, are testing the tomato peels and eggshells in rubber components for auto parts.
If they end up in car parts, it won't be the first time something such as this has happened. Cashew husks and the oil derived from them are found in most brake pads and shoes.
“What sort of properties do you want in a reinforcing filler? You want something that’s really tough and strong. So that’s why I looked at the tomato peel.” Katrina Cornish, an international authority on alternative natural rubber production
Cornish and thousands of other chemists and lab-coat-wearing material science researchers at national labs, suppliers and automakers are rethinking the automobile at the molecular level. It's part of what Ben Patel, who most recently served as chief technical officer at Tenneco, calls a "material science revolution" moving through the auto industry. And what's driving it may not be quite what you think.
Lightweighting, fuel economy, emission reduction and the quest for more environmentally friendly recyclable parts have traditionally driven changes to the automobile's components. But the way automobiles are expected to be used in the future has suppliers reinventing the building blocks of many parts of the car.
Mobility, including ride-sharing, could be the biggest factor. The average vehicle sits idle about 95 percent of the time. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Americans average about an hour or so a day behind the wheel. But according to some estimates, self-driving cars eventually could be in service for as long as 20 hours a day. That amount of use will require far more robust components that suppliers are already gearing up to produce. The goal that some suppliers are looking at: create vehicle components to withstand 100,000 miles of use a year and deliver a 1-million-mile life expectancy.
A larger number of privately owned passenger vehicles already are seeing higher usage rates, offering a glimpse into the future at how cars will have to change when the in-service hours climb. Some full-time Uber and Lyft drivers are piling as much as 1,000 miles per week on their vehicles, according to the ride-share information base RideGuru. They see dozens of people a day entering and exiting the vehicles, which is creating new considerations about the wear rate of such parts as seat foam, door seals, mechanical components and even paint.
Researchers at the Clevite Elastomers business of Driv in Milan, Ohio, use proprietary three-axis testing machines to subject rubber bushings to extremes for validation.
Electrification is also bringing new challenges at the molecular level, says Rod Hadi, Tenneco's executive director of global performance materials engineering. Some drivetrain noises that are usually drowned out by a gasoline-engine vehicle can be heard in electric vehicles. Automakers have asked Tenneco to develop drivetrain mounts and suspension components that prevent those noises from being heard, says Steve Pohlman, general manager of global elastomers for Driv, the former Tenneco division that develops ride control components.
"The noise frequencies that the engine and transmission are generating tend to be lower than EV frequencies," Hadi said during a tour of Tenneco's global r&d engineering center in Milan, Ohio. "So the material that we are developing in terms of isolation is changing, because we are now looking for isolation that is happening at higher frequencies. And the way we look at material development is changing because of that.
"An electric vehicle will be far more durable than an internal combustion engine vehicle, and everything else on the vehicle will have to last just as long," Hadi added.
Tomorrow's self-driving vehicles might have components that last 10 times longer than today's cars. But those parts can't cost 10 times more than the components they replace. In fact, suppliers say automakers don't want to spend a penny more than what they're paying now.
"If you look at costs at the pure component level alone, something can appear more expensive. But what if it changes the speed and complexity of your production and/or manufacturing process? What happens if it reduces two other components? What happens if it reduces warranty costs? There are a bunch of different ways to calculate cost," he says.
That will be a complex equation as suppliers introduce components made of new materials that — at least on a line-item basis — might cost more than an existing part but in actuality may end up being less expensive.
The seating division of megasupplier Magna International just introduced a seat trim material it calls Freeform that is a natural for ride-share vehicles. The material costs slightly more than what Magna uses today, but the company calculates that Freeform ends up costing automakers about the same because it greatly simplifies the seat manufacturing process. Freeform eliminates such things as guide wires and hog ring clips that are commonly used to attach the seat and foam cushion to the seat frame. Instead, Freeform simply unzips, allowing for quick seat upholstery cleaning and changes.
Freeform is one of Magna's first seating products that reflects innovation at the molecular level, said Renee Chauvin, Magna Seating's global director of foam manufacturing. Magna expects to have the material in production in about a year. "Where we are going across the board at Magna is a wholesale change to our chemistry systems at the molecular level," Chauvin said. "We are dealing with our suppliers and getting higher molecular weight materials. That allows us to increase the durability and performance of the end product. That's for today's market as well."
At Cooper Standard, which makes rubber and plastic products such as window seals and hoses for fuel and brake systems, CTO Chris Couch is overseeing a growing r&d budget with the goal of making advances in material science to keep its products from becoming commodity items. Couch says that while electrification is already occurring across the industry, automakers are not yet demanding components with extremely long life cycles.
"We think it is coming," Couch said. "We ask our customers all the time and they tend to say, 'We're thinking about it, too.'
"We're not getting quotes yet requiring 10-times life cycle — but we do think it is coming, and we are preparing for it. We are investing in materials that can go the distance."
Just as automakers' r&d budgets have ballooned to pay for new technologies that will be used in electrified and self-driving cars, suppliers are facing large expenditures as they evolve their products. Even so, some won't make it, Patel believes.
"The reality is that publicly traded companies, which have to report every night and day and have to be measured against year-over-year improvements, are always going to do what's in their best interests in the short term," Patel said. "By definition, research is a long game. That being said, companies that have a strong balance sheet and who are not fighting off debt and who have a strong leader should be investing in new materials."
Cooper Standard spent five years developing a door seal it calls Fortrex that replaces a traditional rubber seal. The Fortrex seal, which feels to the touch like a soft, flexible plastic, weighs about 30 percent less than a traditional seal. It will likely never wear out and provides better protection against wind and water.
"It was a significant investment and required sustained commitment in r&d from the corporation over many years," Couch said. "That's a testament to Cooper Standard being an innovation-driven company. It's part of our strategy, winning through innovation and material science.
"But that doesn't come overnight. You don't turn it on and off depending on the economic flavor of the business this month. You have to sustain that to bring some of these high impact innovations to fruition."
"If it doesn't scale economically, it will get a lot of excitement, but then it will quickly disappear," he said. "And that doesn't do anyone any good, because it makes people jaded for anything new. People who are conservative go with tried and trusted materials, and that's not what catalyzes new innovations."
Almost no part of future vehicles will be left unchanged. And that includes the paint and coatings beneath the paint. Axalta, one of the industry's largest suppliers of coatings, has amped up its r&d expenditures in recent years to stay ahead of changes to vehicle structures, CTO Barry Snyder told Automotive News. While Axalta is working on new materials for paint, such as formulations that can help self-driving cars see other vehicles, it is also using its existing technologies in new ways, Snyder says.
"If you try and protect a steel vehicle, it's pretty straightforward in terms of corrosion protection," he said. "Corrosion technology has been around a long time. An all-aluminum Ford F-150 corrodes a little differently than steel, but it is still monolithic, and you can think of a solution that will work for the entire body.
Driv Chief Engineer Joe Cerri tests elastomer samples for intrinsic strength at the supplier’s technical center in Ohio. Driv, formed out of last year’s merger between Tenneco and Federal-Mogul, has developed predictive tests to speed development on engineered materials.
"Now move to a place where you are incorporating into the same body different grades of steel, aluminum, magnesium, carbon fiber reinforced plastic, and what you have is this jigsaw puzzle. Each one corrodes differently and can interfere with the corrosion performance of each other. When you paint it and put it in an oven, they expand at different rates and when it cools down, it shrinks again. You have to have a paint film that can expand and contract over all these different substrates and come out looking great."
Patel sees innovations coming at a faster pace than at any time in history. And he credits the Internet as a driving force for the changes to come to vehicle materials. Due to worldwide Internet information, more minds will be engaged in creating material solutions, just as Katrina Cornish considered the tough skins of tomatoes.
"Today, a kid sitting in Africa or India or some other place can see, in the same moment as you or I, the latest publication coming out of Harvard or MIT or Berkeley or Yale or anywhere else. What you've done is open up the front end of the funnel to billions more people.
"That increases the odds of something creative happening," Patel said. "You marry that with the speed at which companies are willing to take risks and invest, and it is all an accelerant for innovation."
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