Clemson University researcher works to close the gap on composite costs

Rising prices for steel and aluminum could make composite materials more attractive for automotive manufacturing.


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According to Srikanth Pilla, an assistant professor and Dean’s faculty fellow of automotive engineering at Clemson University (Clemson, SC, US), cost is the biggest barrier to using more composite materials in automotive manufacturing but that those materials could become more attractive if steel and aluminum prices rise in the wake of new tariffs.

“The difference in the cost is reduced substantially,” says Pilla, “That means if the mindset changes for the OEMs, there might be more opportunities for more parts to be made from composite.”

Pilla is working to close the gap in his lab at the Clemson University Center for Automotive Engineering in Greenville where he leads a team that is working with an original equipment manufacturer to create a driver’s side front-door assembly out of carbon-fiber-thermoplastic composites. The goal is to reduce the weight by 42.5 percent, helping automakers meet new fuel-efficiency standards going into effect in 2025.

“Just like they’re giving incentives for electric vehicles so that there is zero pollution, if they could also give incentives for lighter vehicles, composites would have a big push into the automotive sector,” says Pilla. “The lighter, the better your fuel efficiency is. You’ll have less pollution if you are using gasoline or diesel. If you are using electric vehicles, you can drive for longer distances. All this could mean a healthier environment.”

Pilla and his team are doing their work as part of a $5.81-million grant they received in 2015 from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Pilla is also the director of the new Clemson Composites Center, which is part of a broader effort to collaborate with industry under the Center for Advanced Manufacturing. The Clemson Composites Center has been approved by Clemson’s Board of Trustees and will be outfitted with new equipment over the next few months.

Pilla is a leading expert in composite materials, says Nikolaos Rigas, associate vice president for strategic initiatives and executive director of Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research.

“The changing landscape of aluminum and steel pricing will certainly have an impact on composite materials,” Rigas says. “Dr. Pilla’s knowledge in this field is extensive and broad. The amount of research funding he has received over the past few years is having a direct impact to the industry. His center for composites manufacturing research will have broad impacts in and out of the state of South Carolina.”