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Vehicle Technologies Office: Materials Technologies

Advanced materials are essential for boosting the fuel economy of modern automobiles while maintaining safety and performance.

Because it takes less energy to accelerate a lighter object than a heavier one, lightweight materials offer great potential for increasing vehicle efficiency. Replacing cast iron and traditional steel components with lightweight materials such as high-strength steel, magnesium (Mg) alloys, aluminum (Al) alloys, carbon fiber, and polymer composites can directly reduce the weight of a vehicle's body and chassis by up to 50 percent and therefore reduce a vehicle's fuel consumption. A 10% reduction in vehicle weight can result in a 6%-8% fuel economy improvement.

By using lightweight structural materials, cars can carry additional advanced emission control systems, safety devices, and integrated electronic systems without increasing the overall weight of the vehicle. While any vehicle can use lightweight materials, they are especially important for hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric, and electric vehicles. Using lightweight materials in these vehicles can offset the weight of power systems such as batteries and electric motors, improving the efficiency and increasing their all-electric range. Alternatively, the use of lightweight materials could result in needing a smaller and lower cost battery while keeping the all-electric range of plug-in vehicles constant.

Propulsion materials enable higher efficiencies in propulsion systems of all types. For example, many combustion engine components require advanced propulsion materials so they can withstand the high pressures and temperatures of high-efficiency combustion regimes. Similarly, novel propulsion materials may be able to replace the current expensive materials in electric motors and drivetrain components, thus lowering the cost of electric-drive vehicles.

Using lightweight components and high-efficiency engines enabled by advanced materials in one quarter of the U.S. fleet could save more than 5 billion gallons of fuel annually by 2030.

The Vehicle Technologies Office's Contribution

The Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO) collaborates with industry to improve materials that will increase vehicle efficiency while meeting consumer and industry expectations.

It does this through two main approaches:

  • Lightweight Materials: Works to lower the cost and improve the properties of lightweight materials while maintaining safety, comfort, reliability, performance, recyclability, and cost
  • Propulsion Materials: Works closely with other VTO technology areas to identify and meet requirements for materials needed to develop cost-effective, highly efficient, and environmentally friendly next-generation heavy and light duty power-trains

Research and development is done in collaboration with industry, national laboratories, and universities. The VTO contributes to the Materials Genome Initiative, a federal interagency effort to support Integrated Computational Materials Engineering. It also works through government/industry partnerships:

Goals

Our major R&D goals are:

  • For Lightweight Materials: By 2015, validate the ability to reduce the weight of a passenger vehicle body and chassis system by 50% compared to a 2002 vehicle. This reduction needs to be cost-effective and the materials need to be recyclable as well.
  • For Propulsion Materials: Develop high performance cost-effective materials that solve key challenges that currently limit the performance of propulsion systems (high-efficiency engines and electric drive, and compatibility with alternative fuels).

These research and development activities are described annually at the Merit Review and in the Progress Reports (Lightweight Materials and Propulsion Materials).