Advanced Engineering 2018

Carbon Fibre Cars of the Future Could be Powered by Their Bodywork

19 February 2010

A research team at Imperial College London are developing a prototype which could lead to parts of a car’s bodywork doubling-up as its battery.

The composite material being developed is made of carbon fibres and a polymer resin mixture, which has the potential to store and discharge large amounts of energy much more quickly than conventional batteries.

Although early in the materials development phase, researchers believe the mechanical properties of the new material may even improve on current automotive standards for things such as impact resistance.

As the material does not use a chemical processes, it takes less time to recharge than conventional batteries. Furthermore, this recharging process causes little degradation in the composite material because it does not involve a chemical reaction, whereas conventional batteries degrade over time.

However, current incarnations of the new material are not yet capable of holding as much charge as today’s batteries just yet.

“We are really excited about the potential of this new technology. We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its bonnet or even the door, thanks to our new composite material. Even the Sat Nav could be powered by its own casing,” says project co-ordinator, Dr Emile Greenhalgh, from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London.

Researchers expect that this material could be used in hybrid petrol/electric vehicles in the not-so-distant future, to make them lighter, more compact and more energy efficient, enabling drivers to travel for longer distances before needing to recharge their cars.

The material also has potential in consumer goods such as the casings of mobile phones and computers, meaning they would no longer need a separate battery and therefore the devices could be smaller, more lightweight and more portable.

Dr. Greenhalgh envisages that this material could eventually replace all of the structural material in hybrid vehicles. When asked about moisture sensitivity, he points out that the current discovery has around 10 years before it is production-ready, but believes either a water-resistant coating or a future formulation of resin could negate this issue.

At the moment, researchers are using the liquid infusion method, but anticipate the material could be available as a prepreg.

For the next stage of this project, scientists are planning to further develop their composite material so that it can store more energy. The team will improve the material’s mechanical properties by growing carbon nanotubes on the surface of the carbon fibres, which should also increase the surface area of the material; this should improve its capacity to store more energy.

With the help of project partners ACG, scientists are also planning to investigate the most effective method for manufacturing the composite material at an industrial level.

Click here to see a video of the material in action

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