Materials, at the centre stage in the mobility ecosystem, can be a winning proposition for all stakeholders. Generally, material strategy is reviewed under three situations – while selecting the material for a chosen system, while deploying weight optimisation opportunities or when reviewing recycling avenues to meet norms and regulations. To be a game changer and have a competitive advantage, organisations are taking up research and deployment of materials in their inner core of growth strategy. It is an important and critical lever in valorisation of consumer needs for cross-deploying across new products and services.
In recent decades, materials’ applications have been significantly expanded in the realm of occupant comfort and safety, beyond the aspects of weight optimisation to enhance fuel efficiency. Smart materials are gaining entry in the vehicle to understand and adapt to occupant ergonomics, temperature management, and to varied form factors. Recyclable materials embedded with nanoparticles provide health relief to the occupant and are more popular in vehicles.
With the advent of e-mobility and hydrogen fuel cells, the thrust of materials for batteries, traction motors, ultra-capacitors, and similar energy storage devices, and hydrogen storage tanks has taken different dimensions. Materials in their virgin or alloy forms, as well as new ones, will be the mainstay in managing cost aspects and sustainability of new-age technologies in vehicles.
Every year, end-of-life vehicles (ELV) generate between seven to eight million tonne of waste in the EU, which needs to be managed effectively. The EU directives set clear quantified targets for reuse, recycling and recovery of the ELVs and their components. This uplifts the game for materials as it encourages development of components without lead, mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium. Materials have been rapidly transformed to meet such directives in different regions of the world.
An example of a radical material research is of a start-up that is developing super-fine strands of silk excreted by spiders to make their webs to revolutionise everything from the clothes that are worn to the cars that are driven. They are specialising in developing next-generation materials from proteins based on spider DNA. These are intriguing areas of research that will impregnate the industry and be deployed horizontally.
LIGHTWEIGHTING STILL THE KEY
In the traditional business perspectives, to meet fuel efficiency targets in the US & EU, automakers are continuing to bank on lightweighting in addition to improving the efficiency of sub-systems. Research agencies predict that average curb weights will decline 2-3 % by 2030 in the EU & US. The best case for lightweighting currently is for heavier vehicles, the light Class 2 to medium Class 4 trucks and other commercial vehicles. Engine lightweighting is an expensive proposition as it requires revisiting of engineering design basics, tooling and manufacturing infrastructure.
Typical big-ticket avenues, as per Bloomberg research, focus on high-strength steel (HSS), aluminium, magnesium, and carbon fibre. In the upcoming five to seven years, HSS and aluminium could largely be implemented, as they are relatively inexpensive and have ease in creating form factors through existing manufacturing techniques. High end niche cars use carbon fibre but the cost is high, recycling is difficult, and processing times are high. Predictions are that demand for metals in passenger cars will be declining. Mild steel, which includes regular steel and iron castings, will have the biggest decline, losing 45 % of demand by 2030. Aluminium will have the biggest gain, adding 7 % to its content share by mass by 2030.
Standard materials will, however, continue in the mobility ecosystems. Radical material innovations will become game changers as new-age technologies in newer vehicle platforms from non-conventional and current OEMs enter the playing field.