Srikanth Pilla is working to create an automobile door that is 42.5 percent lighter than a conventional one but still meets or exceeds the fit, finish and functional requirements. Amod Ogale is part of a nationwide team working to make composite materials less expensive so that they can be used more widely.
A composite material is made of two or more materials and is created because it has qualities superior to conventional materials. Composite materials are important to the making of cars, planes and other vehicles because they can be fashioned into parts that are stronger yet lighter than steel.
Manufacturers are ramping up composite materials production across South Carolina as the area’s automotive and aerospace industries continue to grow.
Companies in the composites and advanced materials sector announced $1.5 billion in capital investment in South Carolina from 2006-13, creating more than 2,700 jobs, according to the state Department of Commerce.
Ground was broken last year on one of those projects, a $1.4 billion Toray plant in Spartanburg County that is expected to create 500 jobs. Also last year, Teijen announced plans to build a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Greenwood County, creating 220 jobs.
Pilla, an assistant professor in the Department of Automotive Engineering, said the biggest driving factor behind the switch from metal to composite materials is that they are stronger and lighter, but they can also improve product design, assembly and quality.
For example, a standard hatchback or sedan will employ about 300 parts for assembly, but BMW reduced the number to 110 in its i3 model by using composites.
“It’s a big advantage,” Pilla said. “No. 1, the assembly time will be much less. You’re also reducing the number of interfaces, which increases the likelihood of success.”
The carbon fibers in Ogale’s lab are strands that look as unremarkable as string when wrapped on a spool. But when they are glued together with special polymers, they form super-strong composite materials.
The objective of his latest research is to help make a low-cost feedstock — which is the raw material that goes into composite materials — and a manufacturing process. The material would be called TuFF, which stands for tailorable universal feedstock for forming, said Ogale who is the director of the Center for Advanced Engineering Fibers and Films and Dow Chemical Professor of Chemical Engineering.
He has received $2 million for his team’s part of the $14.9-million research project, which is based out of the Center for Composite Materials at the University of Delaware. The research is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.
“Carbon fibers are used commercially in high-performance aircraft applications, including some in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner,” Ogale said. “However, such fibers are also very expensive, so there is significant interest in reducing their cost.”
South Carolina had a head start in producing carbon fibers. The state was at the center of the textile-manufacturing universe through much of the 20th century. Then other countries that could offer cheaper materials and labor entered the picture.
When textile jobs started heading overseas, some companies began to pivot to composite materials. Clemson has followed suit by reshaping some of its academic and research programs to reflect industry needs.
Pilla is doing his research at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR) in Greenville. He said he is pioneering “a new cross-functional focus area” in composites that he terms “intelligent revitalization of composites design and manufacturing.” His door project, funded through a $5.81-million grant from the Department of Energy, is a prime example.
Under his leadership, a nationwide team of researchers is using carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic composites to fabricate a driver’s-side front-door assembly for a large original equipment manufacturer.
The technology could also be used to create other vehicle parts and hit the market by 2022.
Pilla said he hopes the research will help shatter the common misconception that metals are stronger than composite materials. He wants to prove that they can work, maybe even to build almost an entire car.
“The door project is not about just planning it out on paper,” he said. “It’s manufacturing the door and then testing it out on a vehicle and proving that it has the same functionality as a metallic door. Once we prove that successfully, it’s a big win-win for the students who worked on it, the faculty who advised them, the suppliers that supported the work, the OEM that guided the team, and above all the Department of Energy who entrusted the team.” ✲