Composites help meet automotive industry challenges, including environmental ones

Many would argue that the future of automotive is in zero emission, self-driving cars. If that is indeed the case, then this means two things for the industry today: cars need to get lighter to become more energy efficient, and their design needs to evolve in order to accommodate new uses and requirements. “Most self-driving car designs will need to take into account very different vehicle dynamics and passenger experiences than today’s vehicles,” explains Carmelo Lo Faro, president of Solvay’s Composite Materials business unit. “On top of the need to be lightweight, these designs will incorporate organic geometries and the simple assembly of parts, which are very difficult to manufacture with traditional metals.”

Thermoset composites: Lighter, faster, stronger

To answer both of these challenges, automakers need materials that are lighter than metal while being just as durable. They need materials that allow complex and innovative designs and that are easy to make and assemble cost-effectively. Sounds like an impossible combination of properties? Hardly: SolvaLite™, a family of thermoset composites specifically developed by Solvay for high volume automotive applications, fits all these criteria.

Not only are SolvaLite™ composites 40% lighter than metal, making cars more energy-efficient and offsetting the heavy battery systems of electric vehicles (granting it a solid position among Solvay’s lightweighting solutions for mobility and transportation); and not only do they have the kind of mechanical performance needed to manufacture the very structure of the car, they also offer a fast curing process, which means you can make one part every minute. And oh yeah, they also have a taylored tack so that robots can easily manipulate them in automated manufacturing chains.

What may seem like technical details actually make all the difference. Because of these properties, car manufacturers can use SolvaLite™ for very high volumes (in the 100,000 parts per year category and above), paving the way for composite parts to become more cost-effective and mainstream than ever before. For new parts, new applications and in very large volumes, these materials can push the boundaries of metal replacement, and that comes with a host of environmental benefits.

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Composites with environmental benefits

It’s for this reason that SolvaLite™ was recently recognized by the Solar Impulse Foundation and labeled as one of its 1,000 Solutions to Change the World. In fact, this is the eighth Solvay product to receive this label. The Foundation’s experts took a close look at what this material could do to reduce the environmental impact of the automotive industry in very concrete ways. For example, a 100kg reduction in the weight of a car can lower its emissions by as much as 2,000 kg of CO2 over its entire lifetime. (Lowering vehicle weight means other car components such as engine and transmission can also be reduced in capacity, size and weight, so it’s a virtuous circle).

SolvaLite™ can do that, but its impact also reaches beyond making cars lighter. As a fast-curing material, it reduces energy consumption during the manufacturing process, and the fact that it enables quicker manufacturing is another source of energy savings. As a result, the Foundation estimates that 50 million cars made out of this material could amount to 100 billion kgs of CO2 saved. 

Time to get moving!