PNNL to get $1M grant from DOE

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerAugust 15, 2012 

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will receive $1 million from the Department of Energy for research to help efficiently replace metal in vehicles with plastic reinforced with carbon fibers.

"With strong, lightweight materials we have an opportunity to dramatically increase vehicle fuel economy, while helping America maintain its competitive edge in automotive design and manufacturing," said Energy Secretary Steven Chu in a statement.

PNNL has developed a computer model that enhances the capabilities of a commercial software package and can be used by car manufacturers as they develop car and truck parts made with a composite mixture of plastic resin and carbon fibers.

"The work done so far has been done in very simple geometries," said Dean Paxton, portfolio manager for PNNL's light-weight materials program.

The grant will be used for two years to validate the computer model on three-dimensional, complex shapes that are more representative of automotive parts, he said.

By using the computer model, automotive manufacturers can reduce the costs of trial-and-error development cycles.

The carbon fibers in the plastic resin is analogous to the steel rebar in concrete, Paxton said. The orientation and length of the fibers in the final part affect the final strength and performance of the part, which is formed using an injection molding manufacturing process.

The computer model can show how the pressure and fiber mix used in the manufacturing process results in fiber alignment in different areas of the part and tells what kind of performance the part will have.

Not only can the model reduce trial and error, but it also can show how strong the part is, allowing the minimum amount of material to be used to save weight.

"The automotive industry is hugely focused to take the weight out of the vehicle," Paxton said.

The industry must meet new Obama administration standards for increasing fuel economy for passenger cars and light-duty trucks that extend through model year 2025. Reducing a vehicle's weight by just 10 percent can improve the fuel economy by 6 percent to 8 percent, according to DOE.

Replacing steel components with lightweight materials also allows vehicle manufacturers to include additional safety devices, integrated electronic systems and emissions control equipment on vehicles without increasing their weight, according to DOE.

The carbon fiber-strengthened resin can be used both for exterior parts of the vehicle and also interior parts that need to be strong, such as where two parts are connected together.

PNNL also will participate as a key partner in a $6 million award also announced this week to the United States Automotive Materials Partnership, a partnership of Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.

The award will be paired with an additional $2.5 million in private investment to help create modeling tools for using advanced high-strength steels for passenger vehicles. PNNL researchers will use computational tools to predict the forming behavior of advanced steels during the manufacture of automotive components.

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