Electric car

A long term evolution

From the moment the future started to flirt with electric vehicles, concepts such as fuel efficiency, carbon footprint and lightweight construction have hit centre stage. DuPont is pursuing this strategy by developing new solutions together with a number of industrial partners, with an eye to a major goal: reducing time to market.

We talked about these issues and more with Lewis E. Manring, Vice President – Global Technology, DuPont Performance Polymers & Automotive Technologies, whom Plastix met at the DuPont European Technical Center in Meyrin, Switzerland

Which are the main requests of car manufactures? Are they different in the different countries around the world?

Without doubt fuel efficiency is the most important, which comes from reducing the weight and size of the vehicle. Noise reduction is another issue because lighter cars transmit more noise than heavier built ones. And this is the same globally.

Do you think that electrical mobility could really grow in the next ten years?

I think electrical mobility will grow, especially when we have overcome the problems of distance. The energy density in the amount of power the battery can store is going to be a concern and alongside this is our ideas about performance; we are used to gasoline and diesel – we drive with it, but we are less comfortable with the energy you get from a battery.

But when it comes to solutions there are so many options and we’ve tried some of them like fuel cells, batteries, and it is not certain which one is going to solve this, but ultimately some time between now and a hundred years from now cars are going to become completely electric. However I don’ know how soon will this transition will happen.

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Anything that reduces vehicle weight is undoubtedly an advantage, but not all solutions are revolutionary ones

Lewis Manring

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You mentioned combustible cells, but what do you think of hydrogen fuel cells? Do you think they offer prospects for the future?

It seems to me the issue about hydrogen is having the distribution network to handle it. We could probably produce hydrogen fuel cells today. But putting a network into place to deal with high pressure hydrogen is difficult. It’s interesting that although there is a solution available we don’t quite know how to implement it.

Cost is another consideration. We have networks for gasoline, we have networks for diesel, and recently we have seen re-charging columns which are everywhere – yet even though it is now easy to charge an electric car we still don’t see that many of them on the road. Hydrogen is even tougher. When I said one hundred years for transition earlier this is how I personally believe the transition will occur. Hydrogen fuel cells will replace electricity and then you won’t have any of the limitations we currently have.

DuPont works extensively in metal replacement in engine applications. Are you interested in developing applications for large parts, for example cockpit or door panels?

The plastics industry has a long history with body panels. And I’m not sure, based on our history and experience that body panels are going to be switched to plastic – in fact I think it’s unlikely. And I think the transition to aluminium panels is going to make this even more unlikely. Because aluminium brings considerable benefits in weight reduction without the shortcomings of plastic body panels so I think we will transition to structural panels. However it would be wrong to say “no” to plastic body panels entirely because it will happen in some cases; the use of composite panels – in smaller sizes – opens up a great many opportunities in terms of aesthetics.

You recently perfected an innovative anti-intrusion bar for Peugeot Citroen. Are you developing other applications like this that use glass and carbon fibre?

Well, we’ve done some work with carbon fibre, but more on a research basis. The hurdle with carbon fibre is cost. There is no reason to go aggressively into carbon fibre until we know we have costs consistent with automotive applications – it will get there – it’s moving in that direction.

However at the moment we prefer to concentrate of glass fibre. But as soon as the costs associated with carbon fibre come down we will take everything we have learned here and quickly transition to carbon fibre options and take advantage of carbon fibre.

Were the research projects concerning thermoplastic composite you are currently working on suggested directly by car manufacturers?

There are some other applications we do outside of car manufacturing. But we can’t do a thousand things right now. We could develop thousands of applications using standard Zytel with no problems – we have all the information we need – but as regards composites we have to be very careful and selective, because this is as much about learning how to leverage these solutions as it is about the financial benefits of a specific application at this point.

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I’m not sure that body panels are going to be switched to plastic, in fact I think it’s unlikely. I think we will transition to structural panels

Lewis Manring

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Many injection machinery producers are developing manufacturing solutions based on organic sheets produced in one shot. The anti-intrusion bar you have perfected is based on a two-step process. Why is that?

When producing parts that require over moulding pre-preg organic sheets onto thermoplastic materials the main difficulty we have to overcome is adhesion between the polymer and the sheet. Adhesion is so critical because if you don’t get that adhesion the overmoulding process really has no purpose. One shot is an advantage if you can get the adhesion; it’s not an advantage if you don’t. Another problem is controlling the direction of the pre-preg fibre during its hot forming and laying in the mould.  It is hard to get the right result unless the laminate is handled with great precision and the movement can be repeated.

Do you think structural foaming technology using physical or chemical processes can make a major contribution to the production of light weight components?

In some cases this technology can deliver excellent results, in others it is less effective. So the decision of whether or not to use them must be made based on what kind of part you need to produce.

Anything that reduces weight is undoubtedly an advantage, but not all solutions are revolutionary ones. In this specific case, foam moulding is an advantage if it brings with it good results in terms of weight reduction, but this must never come at the expense of other issues such as safety, resistance to wear and tear and service life.

There’s a lot of talk about bio-plastic. What will be their role in the automotive industry?

I think that they will become very important and that the majority of plastics used in automotive will be renewably sourced. That’s still a way off. Part of the reason the majority will be renewably sourced is that when I look at our portfolio I see that renewably sourced polymers will be more cost effective. But I also think automotive companies in Europe are very motivated because of legislation about reducing their carbon footprint and the impact of CO2 whereas other countries are a little slower. But as CO2 and global warming concerns become more important for the general public I believe we are going to get to a point where the automotive companies can’t ignore it and reducing weight and using renewable materials. All of that will become part of a marketing strategy to give people an honest answer to their concerns and given the positive image of renewably sourced sustainable polymers, this will be part of that message because there is a benefit in the automotive field too.

A key word at DuPont is “cooperation”. Are you already collaborating with machinery or technology producers for plastic materials or have you any plans to do so in the future?

We do work with other manufacturers, but we don’t have any joint venture to say this is exclusive. Actually I don’t know if an exclusive agreement would help us or hurt us. Once again, we don’t know exactly where this is going to go. We understand the physical benefit, but how you are going to manufacturer cost effectively is another matter. We still need to learn a lot, so we really want to be able to work with many manufacturers.

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