The magic of composites: How can 1+1+1 equal more than 3?

JEC Innovation Award 2016 Click to enlarge
When you combine together two or more materials to create a new one, you make a composite. Composites become magic when they exhibit physical or chemical properties which are way beyond those of their constituent materials. Compared to traditional industrial materials such as steel or aluminum, continuous fiber composites may be lighter, stronger, stiffer, more aesthetic,  more functional. Today they are increasingly replacing metals, especially in car, truck, and airplane applications. By making these applications lighter, the automotive and airplane manufacturers are able to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions or develop innovative design. 

Structural parts are more challenging to form from composites than other components. For example, the firewall of a truck, the bulkhead that separates the engine compartment from the cab and protects the driver in case of an accident. Shaping a firewall from composites was a challenge Solvay researchers specializing in thermoplastic composites and designers from Renault Trucks decided to grasp in 2012. 

The researchers knew that they had two major assets: Solvay’s portfolio of thermoplastic composite raw materials and its cutting-edge competency in the design of parts using these materials. The researchers chose to use a thermoplastic resin called Evolite® which is reinforced with continuous glass fiber, and overmolded it using TechnylSI® material.

Solvay and Renault Trucks then partnered with the German automotive parts producer HBW-Gubesch to test the concept. Together, this multi-disciplinary team completed by two other innovative companies (Sika and Bolhoff) created the world’s first truck firewall made of composite materials, and in record time. 

With the performance of a metal part, but 25% lighter, the new firewall requires half the assembly time of a metal firewall and is cost competitive. The new firewall was assembled on a truck and tested in front crash scenario and vibration and durability tests over a million kilometers. Results showed that the firewall meets the transport industry’s strictest safety requirements. At the end of 2015, the new technology was validated as being ready for serial production.

When you assemble the right elements, magic shall happen and the result can make more than the sum of the individual parts. This is true for composites... and as well as for collaborative innovation.

Solvay, Renault Trucks, and HBW-Gubesch won the 2016 JEC Innovation Award* for Structural Parts in Automotive.


*JEC: the world’s largest industry organization for composites.