Car Materials Of The Future

You’ve probably never given it much thought, but it takes a tremendous amount and variety of materials to build your car – steel and alumin...

You’ve probably never given it much thought, but it takes a tremendous amount and variety of materials to build your car – steel and aluminium to build the chassis, plastic for the interior and exterior fittings, fibres to form upholstery and carpets, glass for your windows, and more metals, petroleum-based products and rubber to make the hundreds of thingamajigs that make up a vehicle. Lighter, cheaper, more durable and preferably available in abundance – these are the characteristics that auto designers want when sourcing for new materials to build new cars.

These materials have evolved over the years, and new technologies are coming up with exciting and innovative materials that could dramatically change the composition of our cars. Here are just three types of materials that advanced automakers have begun using and might be using more of in the future:-

1) CARBON FIBRE

Carbon fibres are composed of strands of carbon atoms woven together; although thinner than a strand of hair, it is stronger, stiffer yet weigh significantly less than steel. By shedding weight, and carbon fibre can be up to 50% lighter than steel, the vehicle would consume less fuel to travel the same distance.

So, why aren’t more cars being made out of this miraculous material? For one, it’s exorbitantly expensive. In 2013, Frost and Sullivan consultancy estimated that carbon fibre cost about US$20 per kilogramme; steel costs only US$1 for the same amount. Thus, presently, this luxury material is usually found on elite sports cars and professional race cars.

Secondly, carbon fibre is difficult to recycle. It cannot be simply melted down, like steel can be, and is difficult to recycle; once recycled, it is not as strong as before and cannot be reused to make more cars. In the European Union, starting from 2015, the Vehicle End-of-Life Directive will take effect, requiring 85% of the car’s material, determined by weight, to be recycled and another 10% recovered, for materials that cannot be recycled.

This has not deterred BMW, though, which early this year launched the i3, an electric car with its entire passenger compartment made from carbon fibre. The car weighs a lithe 1,195kg (without range extender) even with having to lug around a battery pack that weighs 230kg, compared to other electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, which weighs in at 1,493kg and the Tesla Model S, which is a hefty 2,108kg despite having an aluminium chassis. BMW has also developed a method to recycle ‘resinated’ carbon fibre, which requires a huge amount of energy, but allows the material to be reused. The German automaker claims that 95% of the i3 can be recycled, so it just about meets the EU requirement.

The BMW i3 carbon fibre passenger compartment
One more thing. While carbon fibre will not rust when it’s scratched or dented, it is not so easily repaired. Unlike metals, which when dented can just be heated and knocked back into shape, a carbon fibre part would probably need to be replaced in entirety. 

But with a carbon fibre production model like the i3 now available and garnering much interest, we expect to see further developments in carbon fibre technology in the years to come.

2) BAMBOO

If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you might have chanced upon bamboo scaffolding still used to construct tall and skinny buildings. Strong, light and abundant – bamboo sounds like an engineer’s dream material.

An article that ran in BBC Autos pondered “Is bamboo the next carbon fibre?” Although, the article wrote, bamboo might not be strong or stiff enough, but even carbon fibre is being used for parts that do not contribute to the vehicle’s overall structural strength. New ways of processing the grass (yes, bamboo is grass, if you care about accurate taxonomy of things) has increased its fire resistance and impact absorption capacity.

Thus far, bamboo has been used in cars more for its sustainability, as automakers search for more easily renewable materials to use. The 2013 Lexus GS 450h offered bamboo-trimmed steering wheel as an option and the Lexus CT 200h’s sound systems feature bamboo charcoal-based resin diaphragm speakers. 


If any of you have ever had bamboo growing in your backyard, you would know that it grows and spreads relentlessly; some species can grow up to a metre a day. It's also abundant, which means that it is ridiculously cheap, costing only a few cents for each kilogramme.

3) BIO-WASTE

Yes, a small fraction of the tons and tons of bio-waste generated as by-products of the manufacturing industry is given a second life as parts of cars. You might remember the headlines from a few months ago, when Ford Motor Co announced that it was working with Heinz to turn tomato skins into composite materials that could be used to replace petroleum-based plastics, like wiring brackets and storage bins. 

Luxury carmaker, Mercedes-Benz, claims to be the first auto manufacturer to use renewable raw materials for the inside and outside of its cars. It uses organic material, including hemp and coconut fibre, to make upholstery. The spare wheel well in the A-Class coupe is not made from the conventional glass fibre, but is formed from abaca banana plant fibre. 


A few months ago, we ran an article about human waste matter being recycled into hydrogen fuel, which is exciting news as it is potentially converting something we produce EVERYDAY, if we are lucky to be of good physical health, into an energy source that we need in such abundance to power our cars (not a car-building material, we realise, but innovative nonetheless).

With innumerous types of bio-waste out there, we look forward to seeing what else can be converted to make the myriad of car parts. If tomato skins and fecal matter can get a second chance, our imagination is the only limit.

images: Wikipedia, bostoncarnews.wordpress.com, mercedes-benz.com

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