The North American International Auto Show in Detroit used to roar.
Car introductions at the auto show's press previews came with the scent of exhaust and burning rubber.
In 2010, however, the air was clear. The auto show hummed and beeped as carmakers introduced both production and concept hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Hybrid and electric cars outnumbered standard internal combustion engines even without including the small electric cars in the auto show's Electric Avenue area.
Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford Motor Co. used one of its three news conferences to talk about its $450 million investment to develop in-house expertise in batteries and electric systems.
While automakers, suppliers and analysts say the standard engine is not going away any time soon with hybrids and electric cars making up just 10 percent of the market by 2020 the industry is plunging into a new electric world, and plastics suppliers are part of a global study that will determine where their products will play a part. That takes in a range of products that extends far beyond the film separators inside the lithium-ion batteries that are becoming the auto standard.
This is going to open up some areas that we currently don't work in as it evolves, and it's still evolving, said Jeff Helms, global automotive manager for Ticona Engineering Polymers.
Many of the specific details of the new electric cars and the materials used on them will not appear until the cars themselves hit the market later this year, including Detroit-based General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd.'s Leaf.
But, in general, plastics will play key roles from inside the battery pack to the electric-motor high-energy cables, converter motors, plugs, electronic control units and their housings, and even the charging station where owners will hook up their cars to top off the batteries.
Just within the electric motor, DuPont Co. engineers estimate, more than a dozen different resins could be used, from nylon to liquid-crystal polymer and polyethylene naphthalate.
This is a continuum, said Terry Cressy, executive manager for original-equipment-manufacturer accounts for DuPont automotive performance materials. It's not just one thing.
Some of the new business will build on existing parts. Liquid cooling systems within the lithium-ion battery pack, for instance, will use the same types of coolants now used in radiator systems, so plastics now used on radiator end tanks make a perfect fit for pipes and ducts inside the pack, Cressy said.
A gas and electric hybrid car has even more need for plastics since the materials appear on existing engine applications such as air-intake manifolds as well as electric power drives, Helms said.
In addition, each pound's worth of batteries means one more pound the cars have to carry, and an even greater need for lighter-weight options in interiors, seating and structural supports such as those in front-end modules and cross-car beams, he said.
The typical battery pack sold today, for instance, is made of metal, with some using a composite material. Once engineers find the best ways to control electronic interference, those packs could go to thermoplastics to help reduce weight, Cressy said.
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