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Future cars: Auto bodywork composite doubles as a battery

By

February 7, 2010

The composite material releasing electrical energy to power a small light (Photo courtesy ...

The composite material releasing electrical energy to power a small light (Photo courtesy of Imperial College London)

The problem is clear. Hybrid cars and EVs rely on batteries for power, but batteries are bulky and heavy, causing the car to use up more energy. But what if a car's bodywork was made of a strong, lightweight material that could store and discharge electrical energy just as a conventional battery does? In pursuing this goal, researchers at the Imperial College London are developing a key building block for the hybrid car of the future, and the implications go way beyond automobiles - think wafer thin mobile phones and laptops that don't need a separate battery because they draw power from their casing.

Imperial College has been working on the idea as part of a €3.4 million 3 year European Union-funded project which includes researchers from a number of European partners, including automotive firm Volvo. The prototype material is a composite of carbon fibers and a polymer resin which can store and discharge large amounts of energy much faster than conventional batteries. Unlike these there is little degradation in the material over time because there is no chemical process involved, and this also aids more rapid recharging. It is lightweight and strong enough to make car body parts, and could be plugged into the household power supply for recharging.

Researchers say the next stage is to further develop the composite in order to store more energy. This may be achieved by growing carbon nanotubes on the surface of the carbon fibers which will increase the surface area, thus improving its storage capacity. They also hope to find alternative options for recharge such as recycling energy created during braking while the car is on the move. Their first test in-situ will be to exchange the metal floor in the car boot, or wheel well, for the composite, and Volvo is investigating the possibility of rolling this out in prototype cars for testing purposes. The addition of the composite combined with a reduced need for heavy batteries could see the car's overall weight drop by up to 15%, consequently increasing the range of future hybrids.

The most effective method for manufacturing the composite material at an industrial level is also being investigated. Project co-coordinator, Dr Emile Greenhalgh, from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London, says: “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. The future applications for this material don’t stop there – you might have a mobile phone that is as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging. We’re at the first stage of this project and there is a long way to go, but we think our composite material shows real promise.”

The future for the Hybrid car looks bright... and batteries are definitely not included.

10 Comments

The compressed air guys have a similar thought, make the frame out of (airtight) tubular steel, use the entire "frame" as a storage flask. Not sure if it was ever implemented.

Phil.Poulos
8th February, 2010 @ 08:39 am PST

...and then you puncture the skin with a nail or what have you and puncture the dream. Catastrophic discharge of the capacitor plates or plain puncture of the "storage tank" and you go one big blast

nehopsa
8th February, 2010 @ 06:39 pm PST

Is this a battery or a super capacitor? I want to make something like this for my electric bike. Carbon nanogel is a bit pricey but offers some crush protection.

Grant-53
8th February, 2010 @ 06:59 pm PST

To minimize the risk of electric shock, the 2010 FIM rules for racing electric motorcycles limit accumulators to 50 volts. A system of circuit switching is needed to optimize current and voltage output with motor demands during braking and acceleration. The rules also allow more aerodynamic body work than gas powered classes.

Grant-53
8th February, 2010 @ 07:18 pm PST

Put vital parts on the skin? Then a fender bender becomes a disaster. What? Were they thinking?

BigCat
11th February, 2010 @ 07:41 pm PST

C' mon guys. This stuff is way better than sheet metal for taking a hit. It can take bending and still function. Remember the Saturn ABS body panels. This will be much stronger. I spent 10 years selling auto parts and I can't wait to my hands on something like this.

Grant-53
12th February, 2010 @ 07:02 pm PST

ahh ABS body panels... pity lego has dibs on the worlds supply of ABS lol.

As to the story, yes, very good, the car is a hybrid, why not the parts of the whole too?

go volvo

Craig Jennings
24th July, 2010 @ 04:40 am PDT

I'm making my next car out of leggos...yeah, yeah, I'll sand the corners down.

About 8 years ago I came up with this same idea when I read that they were making layered batteries out of lithium polymer and copper and could make it many layers thick. So I wrote an electric car proposal out listing as one of the design features batteries in the shapes of hoods, roofs, door panels, floor panels and so on to power the car so it would look like it had no batteries at all. I love to be vindicated but hate to lose the royalties. Panels up to 3/4 of an inche thick would have made a ridged body and deliver a lot of capacity. I wonder how thick they were thinking of going with their carbon panels since they are already very ridged and strong, they would hardly need to be more than 1/4 of an inche, but how much voltage will that produce? My other idea along side that is to print solar cell material right onto the battery panel so it doesn't need charging. Or seldom need it. Now that technology is here also, we need to marry the two together. Ask me about my ten other ideas for improving the E.V.

Ronald Wade Cooper
2nd August, 2010 @ 10:59 pm PDT

Ronnie Wade Cooper is right if they incorporate printed solar cell tech into the composite material it would be super awesome. B.P, shell and all the other oil giants would rightfully be frightened of that but they can kiss my ass.

O-J McMinn
30th September, 2011 @ 03:07 am PDT

Soon they'll be able to harvest longitudinal and torsional flex as well as several frequencies of vibration. Add that to pneumatic energy capture (yes from internal tire pressure changes as the vehicle rolls over uneven surfaces). So far no one has proposed a holistic solution because the "geniuses" are too busy patenting their miniscule advancements. That's what the oil companies are counting on...

Mirmillion
23rd January, 2012 @ 08:26 am PST
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