Composite could provide power and strength in automotive applications

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Parts of a car's bodywork could, one day, double up as its battery, according to a research team that includes Imperial College. The three year €3.4million project is aiming to develop a prototype material which can not only store and discharge electrical energy, but which is also strong and lightweight enough to be used for car parts. Ultimately, the researchers expect the material could make hybrid petrol/electric vehicles lighter, more compact and more energy efficient.

The material, which has been patented by Imperial, could also find use in the casings of everyday objects such as mobile phones and computers. By not needing a separate battery, these devices could be made smaller, more lightweight and more portable. Project coordinator Dr Emile Greenhalgh, from Imperial's Department of Aeronautics, said: "We are really excited about the potential of this new technology. We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its bonnet or even the door, thanks to our new composite material. The future applications for this material don't stop there – you might have a mobile phone that is as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging. We're at the first stage of this project and there is a long way to go, but we think our composite material shows real promise." The composite material being developed is made of carbon fibres and a polymer resin. It is said to be able to store and discharge large amounts of energy much more quickly than conventional batteries. In addition, the material does not use chemical processes, making it quicker to recharge than conventional batteries. Recharging is said to cause little degradation in the composite material because it does not involve a chemical reaction. For the future, the researchers are looking to improve the material's mechanical properties by growing carbon nanotubes on the surface of the carbon fibres.This would also increase the material's surface area and improve its capacity to store more energy.