BMW April 2022

Thousands of lab-coat wearing material science researchers are rethinking the automobile at the molecular level. Katrina Cornish, a professor at Ohio State University and an international authority on alternative natural rubber production, properties and products, as well as rubber biosynthesis believes that it is possible that tomato skins could end up in your next car. In fact, tomato skins could replace a portion of the environmentally dirty carbon black found in the rubber used in suspension bushings, motor mounts, tyres, hoses and elsewhere on the car. 

Cornish remarked that tomatoes must have tough skins because when they are at the bottom of a truck and are not getting squashed, those are the kinds of properties you want in reinforcing filler.

Eggshells are another product that could replace a portion of carbon black. Eggshells when ground into a fine powder might also work as a reinforcing agent in carbon black. OSU researchers are working with Tenneco and one major automaker to test tomato peels and eggshells in rubber components for auto parts. This is not the first time something like this has happened – cashew husks and the oil derived from them are found in most brake pads and shoes.

Game changers

Lightweighting, fuel economy, emission reduction and the quest for more environmentally friendly recyclable parts have traditionally driven changes to the automobiles components. Mobility, including ride sharing, could be a big factor. Since the average vehicle sits about 95% of the time, the amount of use will require far more robust components that suppliers are already gearing up to produce. The goal is to create vehicle components to withstand 100 000 miles of use a year and deliver a one-million-mile life expectancy.

“Electrification also brings new challenges at the molecular level,” says Rod Hadi, Tenneco’s executive director of global performance materials engineering. “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 said. 

Cost challenge

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 they are paying now. The challenge is to figure out how to deliver next-generation parts without huge price hikes.

It’s coming

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.  

Lighter rubber substitute

Cooper Standard spent five years developing a door seal it calls Fortex that replaces a traditional rubber seal. The Fortex seal, which feels to the touch like soft, flexible plastic, weighs about 30% 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 testament to Cooper Standard being an innovation-driven company. It’s part of our strategy, winning through innovation and material science. But that does not come overnight. You have to sustain it to bring some of these high impact innovations to fruition.”

The key to success for new materials is scale and a diverse and reliable supply base.

Stretchable paint

Almost no part of future vehicles will be left unchanged. 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.

Protecting steel and aluminium is pretty straightforward in terms of corrosion protection but now move to a place where you are incorporating into the same body different grades of steel, aluminium, magnesium, carbon fibre reinforced plastic, and what you have is this enormous jigsaw puzzle. Each one corrodes differently and can interfere with the corrosion performance of each other. When painted and put 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.

Innovations are coming at a faster pace than at any time in history. The internet is seen as a driving force for the changes to come to vehicle materials.  More minds are engaged in creating material solutions. 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 Berkely or Yale, or anywhere else for that matter. What you’ve done is open up the front end of the funnel to billions more people.