The weighting game - Q&A with SABIC - Just Auto
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The weighting game – Q&A with SABIC

By Matthew Beecham 03 Sep 2021 (Last Updated September 3rd, 2021 11:58)

As lightweighting continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing the automotive industry, manufacturers are increasingly turning to composite materials for weight savings, functionality and sustainability. To learn more, we spoke to Sherri Lane, Senior Business Manager, Americas Mobility at SABIC.

The weighting game – Q&A with SABIC
Sherri Lane

Could you tell us a little more about how your resin solutions can help OEMs to meet upcoming regulations on collision risk avoidance using ADAS?

Radar sensors are widely used in advanced driver assistance systems for collision avoidance supporting features like blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise control, and automatic braking. Radar units offering longer-range detection and improved image resolution operate at higher frequencies and require specialized materials to absorb, shield, and protect the sensor. SABIC’s Specialties business is focused on solving some of the industry’s biggest challenges affecting vehicle vision system reliability and performance, including minimizing ghost images in radomes with our radar-absorbing LNP STAT-KON compounds and improving signal transmission for front and back covers with our low Dk/Df  LNP THERMOCOMP compounds. New combined-effect materials are under development offering both heat management and EMI shielding properties to address next-generation millimetre-wave radar.

Demand from OEMs for lighter construction materials is relentless. How is SABIC addressing this?

In addition to battery cost, range anxiety has been one of the barriers to widespread EV adoption. Light weighting of electric vehicles can help extend drive range. Replacing metal in the EV chassis with lighter weight materials can optimize battery capacity and offer cost and performance efficiencies. SABIC’s Specialties business has developed metal-plastic hybrid designs for lighter weight structural parts such as rails, posts and rockers. Replacing conventional aluminium rocker reinforcements with a metal/plastic hybrid design using NORYL GTX resin can offer up to 45% lighter weight and allow for customized energy management features.

For some time, carbon fibre has been used in F1, aerospace and marine applications and is gradually making its way into vehicle manufacture. Where do you see the greatest opportunities/applications for carbon fibre in mass-produced cars?

Carbon fibre has had success in industries such as aerospace and consumer electronics with applications like airframes and laptop covers that demand strong and lightweight materials. Carbon fibre has a notably lower specific gravity than glass fibre and inherently has a much higher modulus, therefore significantly lower loading levels of carbon fibre can be used to achieve the same or even better performance.  Carbon-fibre-reinforced plastics (CFRP) have been successfully used in the body-in-white structure of premium cars such as BMW i3 and the BMW 7 Series. Compared to thermoset-based composites, thermoplastic-based carbon fibre composites offer shorter cycle times and more design flexibility. This opens the door for making lighter weight, complex features for load-carrying members and can facilitate further adoption in automotive applications. SABIC’s Specialties business offers carbon fibre compounds with thermoplastic-based resins such as polyamide (PA66) and ULTEM (PEI) resin for the automotive industry.

It appears that processes to manufacture carbon fibre have moved faster than those for recycling it. Are there still challenges when it comes to end-of-life recycling of carbon fibre parts?

Parts made of carbon fibre-reinforced composites, especially thermosets, have been challenging to recycle cost-effectively. As a result, end-of-life carbon fibre composites or scraps from the manufacturing processes are usually destined for landfill or incineration. Working with our customers and value chain collaborators in the aerospace industry, SABIC’s Specialties business can now incorporate recovered, extracted carbon fibres into various thermoplastic resins, such as polycarbonate, polyamide (PA66), ULTEM resins (PEI) and PEEK, creating a robust materials portfolio that offers equivalent performance properties to materials made with prime carbon fibre for demanding applications in various industries.

To what extent is increased structural use of composites gaining traction in vehicle manufacture?

Structural composites continue to gain traction within the automotive industry by replacing metal in body-in-white (BIW) structures such as pillars, roof and floor structures, and chassis rails. There is a trend to move from conventional steel to high strength steel which can offer up to 10% weight reduction. Aluminium has also been considered as an alternative material, providing up to 20-30% weight savings. Composite solutions, however, can provide up to 40-60% weight savings with similar performance to steel and aluminium. Vehicle manufacturers have become very interested in this solution to help reduce the weight of structural members such as steering columns, cross car beams, liftgate inner structures, and pickup truck beds as well as semi-structural panels like hoods, bumpers, and body panels where design flexibility is needed for more complex styling features.

What new and potential automotive applications are there for composites?

The need for continued light-weighting to further extend drive range and the desire for increased flexibility in intricate parts are driving new applications for composites. Potential applications include EV battery frames and the bottom enclosure, SKID plates in the bottom of the vehicle which provides protection, and newer spaces like EV trunks and frunks. Other potential focus areas could be exterior panels like hoods, fenders, and charge port lids enabling RF transmissivity to support the integration of ADAS sensors either behind the panel or as an embedded solution, which can enhance safety and vehicle to vehicle communication.

What have you learned during the pandemic that you did not expect to learn? 

During the pandemic, the automotive industry has demonstrated enormous resiliency. Within the value chain, companies have found new ways to work together such as collaborating virtually or by forging new relationships. I have been impressed by the industry’s ability to continue to innovate during this unprecedented and challenging time. For example, vehicle manufacturers have managed to launch new electric vehicle platforms and delight consumers. Amidst various challenges, many automotive OEMs detailed aggressive plans to launch an even greater number of electric vehicle platforms by 2023 than anticipated. Lastly, assisted driving features continue to be improved and integrated into more vehicles with a renewed focus on safety and next-generation autonomous driving capabilities.