Predictive Engineering Tools for Designing Lightweight Auto Composites

New technology could speed development of more economical carbon fiber materials.

Predictive engineering tools for designing new, economical, and lightweight automotive composites, which could lead to the speedier creation of more economical carbon fiber materials, have been developed. This effort was led by researchers at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Richland, Wash., along with industry and academia.

Among the key industry players, was PlastiComp, Winona, Minn., a specialty compounder with significant commercial expertise in long fiber thermoplastics (LFT) and compounds with glass and carbon fiber reinforcement, as well as hybrids of the two.

PlasticComp’s CEO Eric Wollan, noted that the company provided 30% long carbon fiber reinforced PP and nylon 66 thermoplastic composite materials for the PNNL research program. Additionally, the company molded some sample plaques that were used during the initial stage to evaluate fiber orientation and fiber length attrition during injection molding processing.

“As a result of this research program, some of the algorithms used by Autodesk’s software were updated to better model long carbon fiber’s characteristics. Being able to more accurately model fiber orientation when conducting computer-aided analysis of design concepts will provide more confidence in predicting long carbon fiber’s performance thresholds and allow wider adoption in automotive and other industries where mass reduction efforts are key objectives,” explained Wollan.

Low-cost, lower-weight materials are needed for improved fuel efficiency. By model year 2025, U.S. regulations mandate that the average fuel economy standard meets 54.5 miles per gallon—a 60% improvements over the current 35.5 mpg.

Although stronger and lighter than steel, carbon fiber composites are relatively expensive. For widespread adoption to take place, new, economical composites that meet mechanical and safety requirements—such as long carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastic resins like PP and nylon—need to be developed. Rather than building molds, molding parts, and testing new composites, computer modeling can speed the process. Using the engineering software validated by the PNNL-lead team, manufacturers will be able to “see” what the structural characteristics of proposed carbon fiber composite designs would be like before they are molded.

As part of the project, PNNL also analyzed the costs of long carbon fiber components vs. standard steel and fiberglass composites and found that the carbon fiber reinforced polymer composite technology studies could reduce the weight of automobile body systems by over 20%.

Other partners of this project were: Toyota, tier one part manufacturer Magna, process modeling software provider Autodesk, and university researchers from University of Illinois, Purdue, and Virginia Tech.