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This is a part of the EV Innovation Intelligence series

Until recently, conventional vehicles were dominated mainly by mechanical engineering and petroleum engineering.

The former ensured the vehicles were safe and robust. The latter ensured that the vehicles had fuel from any place imaginable, at a reasonable price.

Since 2000, even the conventional cars were being invaded by other engineering streams. Electronics and software became an increasing part of every vehicle, especially cars. Fuel economy started showing on the radar and car makers had to start worrying about having lightweight parts to make the vehicle fuel efficient. And then, out of nowhere, the iconoclastic concept of autonomous vehicles sprang onto the road and overnight, an army of mathematicians and computer people with fancy titles such as data scientists had invaded the automobile.

With the advent of electric vehicles, one additional stream of engineering / sciences will make themselves felt in the room – material sciences. While material sciences had helped the industry last two decades in reducing the weight and increasing safety, these sciences will now play a role closer to the heart of the vehicle – their fuel.

Material sciences may not be used in isolation, in many cases within EV and even battery development. There are cases where material sciences fuse with mechanical engineering. For example a simulation software company Paramatters simulates and analyzes different materials and different topologies to form different components of the vehicle to study its load bearing abilities, thermal resistance etc. The software weighs different materials at different locations and gives a suitable material and the material topology for that component. This is an example of how material sciences have to blend themselves with the overall design of the vehicles.

Material sciences for better batteries

To a significant extent, batteries belong to the domain of material sciences. Though batteries are known as electrochemical devices, with EV batteries become larger, and with fast charging looming, the use of material sciences for battery performance and safety are coming to the fore.

Many developments within a battery chemistry could be defined as cross-products between chemical and material sciences because of the use of different chemistries to derive a suitable material for an application. For example, nano-porous silicon is developed by chemical scientists which would be formed into usable anode structures by material engineers. Another example is the effort in which many different ion-emitting chemicals are being fused with lithium to form cathode materials.

Lightweight materials

Material sciences could make a still bigger impact on electric vehicles through application of lightweight materials in the main body of the vehicles. Composite materials are not new to the automotive industry and their use could increase much further with vehicles keen on providing better mileage and lower carbon footprint to its users.

For instance, The ACRIM (All Composite Reduced Inertia Modular Wheels) wheel project, being developed by a consortium of UK composite experts comprising Carbon ThreeSixty, Far UK and Bitrez Ltd, has won accolades and even a recent funding. This project  developed the world’s first commercially viable, low-cost, lightweight, all-composite wheel for electric and driverless cars, among others.  The all-composite wheel will be 4 kilograms lighter than a generic 8-kilogram 15-inch wheel, and is predicted to provide efficiency gains of 5-10% representing a 5% fuel saving.

Material sciences in metal mining

Material sciences, more in the form of metallurgical science could also significantly play a role in metals mining (Li, Co, Ni…) and refining in the upstream component of the electric vehicle / battery value chain.

Rise of nanotech

Within material science, nanotech is becoming one prominent area of research and development. Nanotech promises many new material science improvements for electric vehicles by enabling lighter, safer and longer lasting materials.

  • Nanotechnology can be incorporated in various automobile parts such as paint, batteries, fuel cells, tires, mirrors, and windows. The introduction of nanotechnologies enhances the performance of existing technologies for the automobile industry. The main advantages of applying nanotechnology in automobiles include providing lighter and stronger body parts (to enhance safety and fuel efficiency), improving fuel consumption efficiency, and therefore achieving a better performance over a longer period.
  • The first utmost benefit of nanotechnology applications is that lighter and higher strength materials can be achieved. As a result of the weight reduction of automobiles, the fuel consumption could decrease tremendously. In addition, it helps to improve \ CO2 emission reductions in urban areas. Moreover, new advanced green lightweight materials for vehicles will only help vehicle reliability as well as fuel efficiency over a longer period.
  • To enhance passenger safety in case of accidents, higher-strength steel has been adopted for vehicles. However, it is tough to recast high-strength steel in the cold state because of a change in size and spring-back effects. Recasting at a higher temperature around 1000 °C helps to avoid such adverse circumstances. To recast the steel at higher temperature nanotechnology coatings can be applied. For this purpose, recent multifunctional coatings are formed using aluminum particles combined with connected and bonded nano-sized vitreous and plastic-like materials. This process will provide higher strength and safety to vehicles during their operation in the real world. Lighter-weight vehicles provide a faster and smoother ride and crash protection which helps safe and sustainable vehicle operation on the road.
  • Apart from automobiles, applications of nanotechnology have been proved a sustainable approach for aerospace uses due to their higher tensile strength and lighter weight. This will not only reduce the overall weight of the aircraft but also decrease fuel consumption. Next-generation aircraft require lightweight, higher speed, and maneuverability. CNTs are the optimal approach to fulfill these requirements, as they are multifunctional. Carbon nanotube applications include lower weight, higher tensile strength, removal of CO2, icing mitigation, and electromagnetic shielding on aircraft, contributing to effective wing materials and lubricants. Apart from strength, CNTs are electrically conductive materials that help enhance the conductivity of composite panels which permits current to move throughout the whole structure of the airplane. This further protects the aircraft against electrical discharge accidents. Aerospace applications require high perfection and security as a tiny defect/error in operation will risk the lives of the passengers. Therefore, there is a need for materials that have high tensile strength, as well as higher resistance to corrosion and fire. Another major concern that requires great attention is a selection of lightweight materials for aerospace.

Recycling of battery materials

Finally, material sciences could play a critical role at the downstream end of the value chain, especially of batteries. With battery recycling fast becoming an important part of every country’s EV ecosystem, both for sustainable management of depleted batteries as well as to overcome scarcity of metals such as Li and Co, the contribution of material sciences to this part of the industry could take on an increased momentum. A handful of large-scale facilities recycle lithium batteries today using pyrometallurgical, or smelting, processes. These plants use high temperatures (~1500oC) to burn off impurities and recover cobalt, nickel, and copper.  Lithium and aluminum are generally lost in this process, bound in waste referred to as slag. Some lithium can be recovered from slag using secondary processes.  Today’s smelting facilities are expensive and energy-intensive, in part due to the need to treat toxic fluorine emissions, and have relatively low rates of material recovery.

Some of the material sciences based innovation updates for EVs:

  • A Tel-Aviv startup claims its lithium-ion batteries are able to charge smartphones and electric vehicles in just five minutes (at 10C rate). Its batteries are powered by organic (carbon-based) compounds and nanomaterials. 
  • Battrion offers Aligned Graphite® and regular graphite electrodes for lithium-ion batteries. The Aligned Graphite® technology allows controlling the orientation of flake graphite particles in the negative electrode for lithium-ion batteries. Orienting the flakes vertically leads to short effective lithium transport distances and therefore to very high charging currents without degradation.
  • Nohms has developed electrolyte solutions containing a new functional ionic liquid material that allows for the creation of non-flammable batteries for electric cars. Named HV electrolyte, for high voltage performance requirements and SF electrolyte for  safety oriented requirements.
  • There is also a vertical of materials innovation aimed at sustainability where components are made from natural and organic fibres or upcycled from waste, so this would be more of bio-materials innovation and not material sciences innovation in the strictest sense.
    1. Vegan leathers have entered automobiles. Porsche’s taycan electric supercar has an option where the buyer can opt fully vegan leather to be used in the vehicle that forms 80% lesser CO2 emission during production. The Taycan’s flooring will feature Econyl recycled fiber, which is made from recycled fishing nets. 
    2. Future Jaguar and Land Rovers will be fitted with floor mats and trims made with fibres from recycled industrial plastic, fabric offcuts from clothing manufacturers, fishing nets from the farming industry, and those abandoned in the ocean– known as ‘ghost nets’.
    3. Ford is trying to do its part to combat climate change by recycling old coffee waste from McDonald’s into car parts. The automaker will be taking food waste from the fast food giant, diverting it from a landfill to its laboratory, where it will be engineered into bioplastics, Ford said. In addition to reducing food waste, the effort will make car parts lighter, use less petroleum, and lower CO2 emissions.

Related resources:

The Materials Really Driving The EV Industry

What’s new in materials science for the automotive industry?

How Electric Cars Can Become Truly ‘Green’, Once and For All


This is a part of the EV Innovation Intelligence series

Posts in the series

Tesla’s Valuation | EV’s in different countries | Purpose built EVs | Mainstream Fuel Cells | IT in Emobility | EVs versus ICEs | Advent of China in Emobility | Charging vs Swapping | Micromobility & EVs | Electric Aviation | Li-ion alternatives | Million Mile Battery | Battery Startups versus Giants | Sales & Financing Models | Ultrafast Charging a Norm | Heavy Electric Vehicles | Material Sciences in Emobility | Lithium Scarcity | Solar Power in EV Ecosystem | EV Manufacturing Paradigm | Innovations in Motors | EV Startups – a speciality Oil Companies’ Strategies | EV Adoption Paths | Covid-19 affect on the EV Industry |

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