Elcomap: biocomposites for high-performance vehicles

01 May 2014

The AMRC Composite Centre worked with two specialist engineering companies to develop innovative biocomposite materials for high-performance vehicles.

Engineering design business Performance Engineered Solutions (PES) Ltd and technology development group Teks UK are playing a leading role in developing sustainable alternatives to the carbon fibre and epoxy materials used in conventional composite materials. These materials are energy-intensive to manufacture, and are not easily recyclable or biodegradable at the end of their lives.

Replacing some or all of these raw materials with sustainable carbon-neutral alternatives can significantly improve the environmental performance of composites manufacturing, and can potentially to revolutionise the production of specialist components for niche vehicles.

PES and Teks worked with the AMRC Composite Centre as part of a project called Elcomap (Environmentally friendly lightweight composite materials for aerodynamic body panels). The project was part-funded by the Niche Vehicle Network, an industry group for specialist UK vehicle manufacturers backed by the Technology Strategy Board.

As a first test of the technology, the team selected two Porsche rear panels and a biocomposite material based on flax fibres and resin from cashew nut shells.

To produce the geometric data for the parts, the standard steel panels were optically scanned. The team then optimised the design so that they could be more efficiently made in composites. These models were then used to machine moulds for the composite lay-up, and to specify the thickness and orientation of the composite material.

"Biocomposite panels in the past have been flat facia panels, but we've used some complex geometry to really push the boundaries of what we can achieve," says Mike Maddock, PES managing director.

The companies used the clean room, large oven and autoclave in the AMRC Composite Centre to produce the prototype parts, and also drew on the expertise of the research group.

"Our expertise in the processing and manufacturing of parts using biocomposite materials was vital for the project," says Tim Swait, AMRC research engineer.

"We'd previously demonstrated the application of these materials to winter sports equipment, so were familiar with the material properties of these biocomposites. We also supported the project by producing test coupons which were used to generate mechanical performance data which were used to design the prototype parts."

After successfully producing the two Porsche panels, the team challenged themselves further by making a larger and more complex Subaru front end.

The panels were finished using conventional automotive painting and lacquering. After initial laboratory testing, the parts were subjected to a real-life challenge - the Porsche panels were fixed to a car and trialled on the Serre Chevalier race circuit at speeds of over 100mph. The panels performed just as well as the steel original, at less than two-fifths of the weight.

Teks has showcased the biocomposite concept to partners in the motorsport community, especially in the rally sport sector. The concept of using renewable high performance parts for race cars has been very well received, says Teks general manager Roland Krain.

"Our rally clients are very interested in using high performance renewable materials for a greener more sustainable motorsport, paving the way for a wider greener automotive future," Krain says.

Teks and PES are now talking to a number of automotive clients of different sizes to provide pre-series structural panels for extensive life cycle testing.

By working with the AMRC, the two companies were able to draw on the resources and expertise they needed to demonstrate the benefits of biocomposites for this niche market.

"For a company of our size, it'd be very difficult to pull all the resources together in one environment to make it viable to carry out this kind of research project," says Dan Fleetcroft, engineering design director at PES.

"To drive new technologies and innovation into the market takes collaboration, knowledge and investment. The AMRC is at the forefront of developing new manufacturing technologies, so we become aware of them more readily than through trying to read all the journals and research papers."

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