Advanced Materials Making a Heavy Impact on Lightweighting

Advanced Materials Making a Heavy Impact on Lightweighting

Lightweight advanced materials are all around us. These materials have low densities and include carbon fibers, glass fibers, metals, alloys and intermetallics, polymers, ceramics, nanocarbon and other nanomaterials, aerogels, bio-based fibers, composites of polymers, metals and ceramics, and structural materials. The materials can be fabricated in various structural forms, such as, open-cell and closed-cell foams, honeycombs and porous scaffolds for lightweighting benefits. Nature, as usual, is always ahead and deploys lightweight cork, balsa, sponge and bone. Pangaea Ventures monitors the technology innovation stream closely and have portfolio companies whose products benefit lightweighting applications. Some of our Strategic Limited Partners actively participate in the lightweight materials markets with leading edge products.

Lightweighting may not be that obvious but it is already part of everyday lives as we drive, fly, build, dress, eat, play, etc. It's easier to move around and about with lightweight materials. Less energy is utilized, resulting in higher energy efficiency and reduced pollution. Think of higher mileage with a lighter vehicle! The Department of Energy projects that a 10% reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6%–8% improvement in fuel economy. Athletes are always looking for an edge with new lightweight gear. The military continually seeks to reduce the weight that a soldier has to carry around.

Industries leverage lightweighting benefits to enhance performance, cut costs, improve energy efficiency and generate environmental benefits. A smart use of lightweight materials is aptly demonstrated with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner; 50% lightweight composite and 35% light metals (aluminum and titanium). The auto industry is on a march towards increased usage of lightweight materials and currently makes use of composites, polymers, aluminum and magnesium but steel still dominates. However, in utilizing these materials, performance, safety, costs, and recyclability standards need to be in place.

Carbon fiber composites deliver impressive properties, stronger than steel with high stiffness and absorption of very high impact energy. While these materials are deployed in high end products, widespread usage, especially, in the automotive industry, is hindered by high costs. Cost reduction efforts based on use of alternative feedstock and process technologies are underway. Glass fiber and carbon fiber reinforced polymer are typically used for wind energy turbine blades to meet the needs of both lightweight and high strength.

Polymers are a natural fit for lightweight applications and they can be used in tandem with other lightweight materials. Many thermosetting and thermoplastic polymers utilize carbon fibers and glass fibers. Nanocarbon additives, such as, carbon nanotubes manufactured by CNano Technology, one of Pangaea's portfolio companies, graphene, nanofibers and carbon black materials generate lightweighting advantages. Aerogels represent another class of lightweight materials and is deployed in a range of applications that include packaging, transportation and energy. Natural fibers and other bio-based materials, such as kenaf, flax, hemp, wood fiber finding use in applications that include automotive, electronics, sporting and construction. Evonik Industries, one of Pangaea's Strategic Partners, just launched a composite "project house" on advanced lightweight materials.

Light metals are gaining market share. The key metals manufactured on a large scale are aluminum, magnesium and titanium. Automakers are already using aluminum taking advantage of a 40% weight reduction compared to steel and increasing use of magnesium is expected. Titanium is too expensive for this sort of use. Issues relating to costs, fabrication, joining, failure modes, recycling, etc. have to be resolved. In conjunction, more cost effective and environmentally friendly refining operations have to be put in place. ARPA-E just awarded $32 million to support advanced manufacturing technologies for lightweight materials.

Recognition of the need for further technology advancement has led to major initiatives around the world involving both industry and academia. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration announced $200 million of support for three manufacturing innovation institutes, one focused on lightweighting materials. Recently, researchers in California came up with a nickel nanofoam that was described as "99.99% of nothing" with a density of 0.9 mg/cm3 (density of Styrofoam 20 mg/cm3)! I expect that we will continue to witness amazing advanced materials breakthroughs on the lightweighting front leading to even more energy efficiency gains and environmental benefits.

General Partner, Pangaea Ventures Ltd. Purnesh has worked with advanced materials for over 25 years, directly involved with clean technologies, nanotechnology, semi-conductors, thin films and coatings, catalysts, powder metallurgy, and manufacturing technologies.View Purnesh Seegopaul's profile on LinkedIn

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Guest Tuesday, 18 December 2018