Electric vehicles are making their way into the market, and development is coming in hot —l iterally.
Automakers and suppliers are working around new challenges with EVs as the industry advances from the traditional internal combustion engine, especially when it comes to temperature management of batteries and fuel cell systems. For rubber and plastics supplier Freudenberg Sealing Technologies GmbH & Co., however, these challenges pave the way for opportunity.
Joseph Walker, director of global technology, materials and laboratory services at FST, told Rubber News that the opportunities lie in managing these new EV batteries and fuel cell systems.
"For years the automotive industry has been focused on providing innovative solutions to improve the quality of internal combustion engines," Walker said.
"Now, while the internal combustion engines are not going away, they are going to diminish in their importance and their rate of product development."
The most important challenges the auto industry faces today, Walker said, is the thermal management and control of EV and hybrid battery systems, as seen with General Motors' recall of the Chevy Bolt.
"Perhaps the most significant opportunity for development is in the management systems of those batteries," he said. "From a materials point of view, that means thermal management and it means safety management."
And that's just what FST is doing with the manufacturing of its DIAvent emergency degassing gaskets and seals to protect against electromagnetic interference (EMI), as well as seals that can handle the hot, caustic fluids associated with lithium-ion batteries.
FST, a leading supplier of auto materials and products, has designed and developed "some extremely innovative approaches" to addressing these challenges, Walker said, "whether it's managing potential pressure buildup that's inside the battery or assisting in making sure that you do not have thermal runaways in the battery by being able to isolate different battery arrays."
Innovation in the works
When taking into consideration e-mobility performance requirements for these new powertrain technologies, things aren't as clear cut.
Walker said there are EVs with battery systems on the market that are "proving to be problematic" by requiring drivers to park long distances from structures or other vehicles—and even catching fire.
"All of those met performance requirements, but the performance requirements were really not fully, I guess, understood or anticipated," he said. "We're in a period of development right now."
Walker said this development presents opportunity for FST because the company already has the experience to handle these challenges due to their investments in this technology, highlighting some of the components FST has in the works.
"Perhaps the hottest items right now are the heat shields," Walker said, noting FST has worked with heat shields for "a number of years" for their aerospace market segment.
"The advantage of somebody working with a company like Freudenberg Sealing Technologies is that we have these very broad market segments that we participate in, which allows us to take things like heat and flame management from things like aerospace, aircraft engines and those kinds of applications, and then apply that same thinking when it comes time for a new market," he said. "Now that is precisely what we have done with some of the heat shield material."
According to FST's e-mobility website, "The United Nations has instituted new standards for improved safety in EVs from 2021 and on. Facing this, we see a strong market pull for heat shields placed between the individual cells and/or around modules of a lithium battery. These shields avoid thermal propagation in case of a severe cell malfunction, or 'thermal runaway.' Additionally, the thermal insulation of a broken cell protects the neighbored cells and thus avoids a fatal battery explosion."
When it comes to EMI shielding, FST has, again, leveraged other branches of the company, like its engineered materials group or non-woven groups, to mitigate and even eliminate EMI interference.
This is important even for ICE vehicles as "infotainment" systems get more complex. "Any type of radio frequency (interference) can be disruptive, annoying or even debilitating to some of the computer systems," Walker said.
"And then there's some very unique approaches that we're taking for emergency cooling of batteries in the event that they start to undergo a thermal runaway. Not only are we able to isolate them, but (we) also have some rather unique technology on how to rapidly extinguish these thermal events if they should occur," he said.
FST said it's using "new materials formulas" to ensure quality and longevity of these components.
"These battery packs are not going to get changed out like you change out oil, so longevity is a very big deal," Walker said. "And it puts a lot of pressure on component suppliers like us to develop materials that meet those longevity requirements."
Longevity requirements, he added, also are not well-defined, likening them to "moving targets."
"Are they 10 years? Are they 15 years? A lot of it depends on how certain sub-assemblies are classified. If they're critical safety items, they (require) 15-year durability, as established by the federal government," he said. "So it depends on where our components are and the demands, really, for the longevity."
FST uses modeling by incorporating technology with its previous knowledge and experience to determine the longevity of their components.
"You can't just test something for 15 years before you put it in the marketplace," he said, adding that making use of simulation tools can give reliable, long-term predictions of material performance.
When talking about how FST designs new materials, Walker said the company must consider compatibility versus durability.
Taking lithium-ion electrolytes into consideration, developers need to make sure their material is not going to be affected when it comes into contact with the electrolytes. "It's not going to be dissolved or softened or somehow rendered useless," he said.
"The rubber industry, classically, is worried about how the material is going to affect the rubber," he said. But from a durability point of view, "we want to make sure that our rubber and our materials are not going to affect the electrolytes because it's kind of a package deal."
FST is invested in making sure it has the full picture to make more informed choices based on hard data when commercializing their products, Walker said.
"It's not something like, 'Well, you know, we've done this stuff with other kinds of coolants, and we think it's going to be alright.' No. It's data. It's factual, indisputable data," he said.
The importance of the pursuit
As the industry looks to the automotive future, much of the traditional business surrounding ICE vehicles will be displaced, Walker said.
"You either have to make a conscious choice that you're going to evolve with the next generation of automotive, or you really have to adjust your entire business model," he said. "You have to be nimble enough to make these adjustments to go along with your major customers or it's going to represent a huge piece of market that you're not going to be able to participate in."
FST also works hard to reduce its carbon footprint, Walker said, keeping with the philosophy of the Freudenberg family.
"Not only does that mean in the materials that we produce, but it also means in how we produce them — lower energy consumption and more efficient production methodologies and looking for raw materials that are more sustainable," he said. "That may be something such as a new process used to produce carbon black."
From a consumer point of view, Walker said FST makes sure it puts the same diligence into the automotive market when looking to the future of automotive technology it has already done for decades.
"We're consumers, too," he said, adding that developers and their families may very well drive a vehicle with FST components. "If anything happens, we don't get a pass because we flash a Freudenberg identity badge. We have the same problems everybody else does.
"It's in our best interest to remember that we are the consumers of the technology we create," Walker said.