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BAC's concept Mono using nano element Niobium in the structure.

Small Thinking for a Big Nanotech Future in Automotive

Nanotechnology could be the answer for several of the biggest challenges facing the auto industry's production goals.

While there has been a slowdown in electric vehicles, automakers are still betting on them as being the future of automotive.

A force to aid in this transition could be the advance of nanotechnology. Industry commentators think the integration of nanotechnology into automotive electronics goes beyond simply technological advancements. This revolution could be a fundamental shift in how the industry perceives mobility to the extent that it involves incorporating nanomaterials and nanoscale devices into vehicles to bring us to a safer, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable path in the automotive industry.

EV Performance

James Trevey, the chief technology officer at Forge Nano, says the consumer wants electric vehicles that perform, recharge fast and which can be purchased at a price similar to the gas-powered vehicles they are accustomed to driving. To meet this wish, they have to address the key component: the batteries.

He adds: “While there have been various approaches to improving battery technology for automotive applications, nanoscale coatings have shown to increase the durability of industry-standard battery materials, allowing batteries to last longer under harsh conditions, while also improving their performance to increase the amount of charge and discharge cycles a battery can withstand in automotive applications, among other benefits.”

Current nanotech in batteries claim to provide coatings that increase vehicle range 20%, extend the lifetime up to 10 times, contribute to faster charge times and increase the safety of batteries with a 50% decrease in heat generation.

“The ability to engineer products at the atomic level allows for unmatched precision that enables peak performance in the most demanding applications, such as automotive,” Trevey comments.

Nanotech Use Cases

Joe Praveen, Frost & Sullivan’s research manager in mobility, says nanotechnology involves lightweighting – a key area of focus for automakers. It incorporates carbon nanotubes and graphene into vehicle components, which he says can enable automakers to reduce component and ultimately vehicle weight while ensuring a strong and durable vehicle structure.

He explains: “Their self-healing and cleaning properties will ease the cost of ownership too. The nano-paintings and coatings will further improve and prolong the aesthetic finishes of a vehicle. All this will lead to enhanced customer satisfaction.”

Thermal management is another important area of focus for automakers. Praveen says nanomaterials with high thermal efficiency aid efficient heat dissipation from components such as brakes and motors. This limits the risk of overheating and it expands components’ lifespan. Then there is noise reduction where nanomaterials made with noise absorption features can also be used to reduce the noise from vibrations, motors and from outside the vehicle.

Praveen adds: “Nanotechnology is also used in automotive lubricants to reduce the friction between engine components. Less friction results in a reduction in energy lost, leading to better fuel efficiency and mileage. Less friction also helps in limiting the wear and tear of engine components, increasing the engine lifespan.”

He also believes incorporating nanoparticles will enhance several aspects of automobile safety and sustainability. With regard to safety, there are nanocomposites to strengthen the structure of a vehicle, which could better protect its occupants in a collision. They also can be used to improve the hygiene of a vehicle – incorporated into its fabrics to prevent bacterial growth and to improve fire resistance in the event of an accident. 

“Windshields and mirrors coated with nanoparticles can help in repelling water and dirt during severe weather conditions, helping the driver with a clear view of the road and surroundings. Anti-fog coatings made of nanoparticles can also prevent fog formation, providing clear visibility for the driver. All this helps in preventing accidents which could happen due to poor visibility.”

Then there’s the use of nanomaterials to benefit the environment and sustainability. They can be used in internal-combustion engines and in catalytic converters to reduce the amount of harmful emissions that emanate from them.  They also can improve the recyclability or reuse of automotive components and of the vehicle itself. “This can help in reducing the amount of components and materials which are discarded, which eventually end up in landfill, polluting the environment,” Praveen explains.

Next Phase of Innovation

Trevey suggests nanotechnology is a tool to enable the next phase of innovation in automotive. He thinks the ability to re-engineer the atoms of the materials that power consumers’ vehicles will open new performance possibilities. He adds, “Consumers want EVs that can drive as far, or further, than gas cars on a single charge and they want cars that recharge as fast, or faster, than it takes to fill a tank of gas.” He concludes by saying traditional lithium-ion batteries have continued to push boundaries in performance. Nanoscale coatings are enabling them to expand what’s possible.

As for how nanotechnology will influence an autonomous-vehicle future, Praveen says it can be used to develop advanced sensors. With nanotechnology they can be developed to be more sensitive to a diverse range of weather conditions, different terrain types or other environmental conditions. This will permit them to “detect anomalies in the operating environment and initiate mitigating actions, improving the self-healing, safety and efficiency of autonomous vehicles.”

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