Composites partnership researches body/battery combo for electric cars

Researchers at Imperial College London have developed a carbon nanotube-enhanced carbon fiber material that has potential to store and discharge electricity, as well as serve as a part of the car body.

Imperial College London (London, U.K.) says its research indicates that composites incorporated into a car’s bodywork could one day double as a battery. Researchers from Imperial College London and their European partners, including Volvo Car Corp. (Göteborg, Sweden), carbon fiber prepreg supplier Advanced Composites Group Ltd. (Heanor, Derbyshire, U.K.) and carbon nanotube producer Nanocyl SA (Sambreville, Belgium), are developing a prototype carbon fiber composite strong and lightweight enough to be used for car parts, yet still capable of storing and discharging electrical energy.

The research team’s carbon composite will use carbon nanotubes within the laminate to store and discharge large amounts of energy. Because the material does not use chemical processes, it will recharge faster, yet in contrast to conventional battery materials, charging and discharging will cause little degradation in the material itself, ensuring long useful life.

In the short term, the team plans to employ the material in the spare tire well within a car’s trunk or boot, and Volvo is investigating such a design in prototype hybrid electric cars for testing, on the premise that it could reduce the number of conventional batteries required to power the car and, thus, reduce its weight by 15 percent. Ultimately, the goal is to use the material in hybrid/electric vehicle body panels to reduce battery size (or eliminate the separate battery pack) and thus significantly reduce vehicle weight and enhance its energy efficiency. The researchers are also exploring alternatives for charging the material, including plugging into household power outlets and storing energy created by electrically regenerative braking systems.

The Imperial College team also believes the patented material could be used for the casings of many everyday consumer-electronics products, such as mobile phones and computers, so that they would not need a separate battery. The team also plans to improve the material’s mechanical properties by growing carbon nanotubes directly on the surface of the carbon fibers, which should increase the surface area of the material and improve its capacity to store energy.

“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,” says project coordinator Dr. Emile Greenhalgh, from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial College London. “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.”