Fiat drives forward ‘wonder material’ to revolutionize automotive industry

A pioneering research project to develop lighter, stronger, more energy-efficient, and safe vehicles using ‘wonder material’ graphene is being led by the University of Sunderland and could potentially revolutionise the global automotive industry.

Graphene is a material made from a single layer of carbon atoms, which is stronger than diamond, lightweight and flexible, first discovered during experiments by Professors Kostya Novoselov and Andrew Geim, who were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2010.

Since the discovery, the European Commission is investing €1bn as part of the Graphene Flagship over 10 years, which aims to take graphene related technologies from academic laboratories to everyday use in multiple industries, creating economic growth and new jobs in Europe.

Lightweight graphene based components by Fiat

To coincide with Graphene Week 2014, the Graphene Flagship has today announced it is doubling in size as a result of a €9m Competitive Call, with 21 new proposals out of 218 from 19 countries, selected for funding.

The University of Sunderland, working with a consortium of five research partners from Italy Spain and Germany, was one of those selected as a partner for their iGCAuto proposal, which will see the group conduct a series of tests analysing the properties of graphene to determine how it behaves when it’s used to enhance the advanced composite materials used in the production of cars.

The automotive industry is widely viewed as being the industry in which the greatest volume of advanced composite materials will be used in the future to produce light vehicles. However, due to the trade-off between light vehicles and safety standards, new directions need to be adopted to overcome safety issues. Several attempts have been made to strengthen the vehicle’s structure to enhance its crashworthiness, however, safety issues remain the main obstacle to producing lighter and greener cars. Therefore, in this project, a novel graphene-based polymer material will be investigated, modelled, and designed to enhance both vehicle and occupant safety; yet remain very light. This material will provide benefits such as improved strength, dimensional stability, and superior durability.

From some recent experiments and numerical simulations, it has been clarified that the impact resistance and crashworthiness optimisation studies of advanced composites components remain at an early stage. A large amount of work remains to be done to develop a practical, reliable and capable tool to analyse and design the new graphene-based polymer composites and study the crashworthiness optimisation for its structures and their applications in the automotive industry.

iGCAuto will address the gap between light vehicles and safety through the establishment of a high-level, enduring collaboration. The particular strength of this project is that it brings together the necessary expertise to develop novel graphene-based polymer composite materials and to then assess and predict their safety behaviour and long-term performance under severe conditions (i.e. crashworthiness, fatigue, etc.). This enhanced understanding will inform asset owners and managers and lead to improved design strategies.

Partners involved in the iGCAuto include: Centro Ricerche FIAT (Italy), Fraunhofer ICT (Germany), Interquimica (Spain), Nanesa S.r.l. (Italy), and Delta-Tech S.p.A. (Italy).

Professor Ahmed Elmarakbi, a Professor of Automotive Engineering at Sunderland’s Department of Computing, Engineering and Technology, initiated the idea and wrote the Graphene Flagship proposal and will drive the project forward over the next 18 months.

He said: “Graphene has tremendous applications for the automotive industry and using it to enhance the composite materials in cars has so much potential. It’s an honour for the University of Sunderland to lead on a project that has been recognised though the Graphene Flagship Competitive Call, which reinforces our reputation as a leading group in international research in automotive, manufacturing and ultra-low carbon vehicle technology.”

He added: “The global automotive industry is currently facing great challenges, such as CO2 emissions and safety issues. The development and manufacture of environmentally-friendly, energy-efficient, and safe vehicles (EESVs) is a great solution to these challenges. Our goal is that the future EESVs is achieved by a combination of novel materials concepts with safety design approaches through the development and optimisation of advanced ultra-light graphene-based polymer materials, efficient fabrication and manufacturing processes, and life-cycle analysis (LCA) to reduce the environmental impact of the vehicle.

“The development of novel graphene-based materials and their potential applications in the automotive industry are the main focus of the iGCAuto project. Using graphene-based materials in the fabrication of nanocomposites with different polymer matrices will be investigated, modelled, and designed to enhance both vehicle and occupant safety; yet remain very light. This material will provide benefits such as improved strength, dimensional stability and better thermal behaviour, better flame behaviour (active as flame retardant and for reducing the emission of smoke), and superior durability.

“There will be challenges with this project, the issue is not only producing graphene-based products, the issue is applying them on a large-scale in cars. To achieve this, we have formed a consortium which comprises some of the best researchers in graphene materials and vehicle light-weighting in the world. The grant opportunity allows the consortium to aim to deliver fundamental solutions to the key challenges faced by the future development of EESVs. A key part of our project is building strong collaborations with world-class researchers who will be able to develop, understand and predict the behaviour of the new graphene composites. Such a predictive ability will be a big step forward in bringing graphene composites to real-world automotive applications.”

Vice-President of the European Commission Neelie Kroes, responsible for the Graphene Flagship Digital Agenda, welcomed the extended partnership: "Europe is leading the graphene revolution.

“This ‘wonder material’ has the potential dramatically to improve our lives: it stimulates new medical technologies, such as artificial retinas, and more sustainable transport with light and ultra-efficient batteries. The more we can unlock the potential of graphene, the better!”

Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre and Chair of the Executive Board of the Graphene Flagship commenting on the new partners, said: "This adds strength to our unprecedented effort to take graphene and related materials from the lab to the factory floor, so that the world-leading position of Europe in graphene science can be translated into technology, creating a new graphene-based industry, with benefits for Europe in terms of job creation and competitiveness.”