Faster auto parts production to get government boost

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded $175 million to accelerate the development and deployment of advanced vehicle technologies.

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Carbon fiber supplier Zoltek Companies Inc. (St. Louis, Mo.) and automotive composites manufacturer Plasan Carbon Composites (Bennington, Vt.) on Aug. 10 were named among 40 organizations that will receive from the U.S. Department of Energy $175 million over the next three to five years to accelerate the development and deployment of advanced vehicle technologies. The shared funding will support 40 projects across 15 states geared to promote innovation throughout the vehicle, a comprehensive approach that will help ensure the technologies are available to help automakers meet the new corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard for U.S. cars and light trucks of 54.5 mpg by model year 2025, announced in late July by President Obama. Combined with steps already taken by this administration, the historically steep rise in the CAFE expectations reportedly will save American families $1.7 trillion at the pump and reduce oil consumption by 12 billion barrels by 2025. The president was joined by officials from Ford, GM, Chrysler, BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar/Land Rover, Kia, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo — which together account for more than 90 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. — as well as the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the State of California, two interested parties that were integral to development of the new CAFE agreement.

“The Department of Energy is investing in new advanced technologies that will significantly improve vehicle fuel economy, save consumers money and create skilled jobs for Americans,” said U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

The selections focus on eight approaches to improving vehicle efficiency: advanced fuels and lubricants; lightweighting materials; light-weight, multimaterial prototypes (undertaken as part of the Clean Energy Dialogue with Canada); advanced cells and design technology for electric drive batteries; advanced power electronics and electric motor technology; thermoelectric and enabling engine technology to convert engine waste heat to electricity; fleet efficiency, including more fuel-efficient tire technologies; and one project to conduct laboratory and field evaluations of advanced technology vehicles and related infrastructure while developing new or modified test procedures.

Zoltek received $3.7 million for its application, titled “Development and Commercialization of a Novel Low Cost Carbon Fiber.” George Husman, chief technology officer at Zoltek, said, “This is an exciting program for Zoltek and very important for the future of carbon fiber, especially for automotive applications. Weyerhaeuser Co. [Federal Way, Wash.] is our joint development partner in this project, with whom we have worked for a year and a half developing a novel low-cost route to carbon fiber, using a lignin/PAN hybrid precursor. Combining this unique precursor technology with improvements in operating and energy efficiencies for carbon conversion will provide lower cost carbon fiber for automotive and other applications.”

Plasan received $2.5 million to evaluate and validate models for predicting the crash behavior of carbon fiber composites by building and testing subcomponent structures. The company was also recently in the news for its new, out-of-autoclave rapid-cure system for composites that reportedly delivers Class A structural parts 75 percent faster with 80 percent less finishing and significant reductions in energy consumption. Engineering manager and R&D director Gary Lownsdale says Plasan has “cracked the code” that allows the company to mimic what happens in an autoclave, without changing resin chemistry or reinforcement technology. At a July 28 press conference, Plasan demonstrated a 17-minute cycle time on a six-layer CFRP test plaque from press close to press open, shaving 73 minutes off the typical layup, vacuum bag and autoclave cycle time. The company has filed numerous methods patents and just filed a joint equipment patent with development partners Globe Machine Manufacturing Co. (Tacoma, Wash.), the supplier of the unique rapid-cure press system, and Weber Manufacturing Technologies Inc. (Midland, Ontario, Canada), the supplier of the thin-shell nickel-vapor-deposition tooling used in the process.

Company president Jim Staargaard says this and other new technologies will allow Plasan to produce CFRP parts at 35,000- to 50,000-unit annual build volumes — several orders of magnitude faster than the currently known fastest time.