CW Blog

This blog is in response to a Jan 2019 article in WIRED magazine, which claims carbon fiber composite production is holding back the development of electric vehicle (EV)/vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft for the urban mobility and air taxi market. I’m going to debate this, but also offer some potentially disruptive new technology, so read through to the end.

Although I applaud the author for covering this rapidly emerging industry, and for pointing out the need for designing with manufacturability in mind, he is misleading at times, most likely because he is not very educated about the composites industry. For example: 

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The list of mechanical functions that composite materials are expected to provide is well known and long: Strength, stiffness, toughness, durability, weatherability, corrosion resistance, impact resistance, fire resistance. This last requirement is one that composites have been addressing for many years. However, the industry is seeing an uptick in demand for fire performance, driven by the development of electric vehicles (EVs) — both on the ground and in the air — and increased penetration, finally, into the fire-conscious rail, marine and construction markets.

Material suppliers, as will be revealed here, are responding to that market pull, but the industry cannot rely only on traditional fire-resistance solutions to meet the demands of this market. For example, furan and phenolic resins have long been solutions for fire-resistant composites. They are, however, crosslinked via condensation reactions, which makes processing more difficult, often creating porosity that requires multiple operations to achieve a good surface finish. They also tend to be brittle. Meanwhile, fire retardants such as aluminum trihydroxide (ATH), added to resins to provide fire resistance, typically require a loading of 20% by volume, which can adversely affect processing, mechanical properties and surface finish. Meanwhile, halogenated flame retardants, once an attractive alternative, are now banned by pan-European regulations including REACH and RoHS. Thus, the composites industry continues to research and develop new solutions.

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Automotive OEMs and Tier 1s are grappling with the need to reduce vehicle mass to meet fuel economy and carbon emission targets. Composite materials have the potential to contribute significantly to this lightweighting push in many areas, but cost, design issues, unfamiliar processing and competition from other materials continue to present obstacles. To overcome these, many projects are investigating how composites can be integrated into multi-material automotive structures for maximum benefit.

One project addressing how composites can reduce automotive load-bearing structures is being conducted by the Clemson University (Clemson, SC, US) Composites Center, the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) and Honda R&D Americas (Raymond, OH, US), with support from the University of Delaware Center for Composite Materials (CCM, Newark, DE, US) and funding from the US Department of Energy (DOE, Washington, DC, US).

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Weight reduction continues to be a goal for electric vehicles (EVs), improving performance and extending range. To that end, designers and manufacturers are exploring the use of composites in battery enclosures, body panels, chassis structures and suspension components. However, one project has set its sights on the powertrain beyond batteries to the gearbox housing, replacing cast aluminum with a hybrid carbon fiber- and glass fiber-reinforced thermoplastic composite to cut weight by 30%.  

This project was engineered by multiple companies within the ARRK Group (Osaka, Japan). Founded in 1948, the group comprises 20 companies in 15 countries, with more than 3,500 employees, and provides product development services including design, prototyping, tooling and low-volume production to multiple industries. Since early 2018, ARRK Corp. has been a subsidiary of Mitsui Chemicals Group (Tokyo, Japan), which produces long fiber-reinforced thermoplastic compounds and unidirectional (UD) carbon fiber/polypropylene (CF/PP) tapes. ARRK has established composites as one of its 14 centers of competence, joining the German industry associations Carbon Composites e.V. and MAI Carbon in 2012 and Composites UK in 2015.

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ENATA Industries (Dubai, UAE), founded by Sylvain Vieujot with offices in Singapore, France and Switzerland, was, says the company, born from the passion for applying high-tech engineering to sailing, flying and architecture, underpinned by advanced composites technology. In 2016, ENATA acquired the small Swiss company Hydros to add to its marine group. As an America’s Cup consultant and holder of numerous marine speed records, Hydros had begun a project in 2010 called FOILER, aimed at creating a foiling powerboat. A small-scale prototype with a hybrid propulsion system, dubbed HY-X, was unveiled by Hydros in 2015, and it won the Union Internationale Motonautique (International Powerboat Association) Environmental Award. ENATA began design and production planning for a full-scale boat, called FOILER, in 2016, to be built at the company’s Sharjah, UAE, boatyard and shop.

Foils, or hydrofoils, work like an airplane wing — instead of enabling liftoff of a plane, though, the hydrofoil creates sufficient lift to raise the boat hull above the surface of the water, greatly decreasing drag and, as a result, enabling much increased speed. The ENATA FOILER’s four patented foils enable the hull to “fly” 1.5m above the water at speeds up to 46 mph. The foils are fully retractable and do not intrude into or impact the hull space. The propulsion system (supplied by Mecachrome, Amboise, France) comprises twin 300-HP diesel/electric hybrid engines powering two generators that drive two custom electric torpedoes, with the torpedoes mounted adjacent to the rear foils.

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