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Applications of nanotechnology in the automotive industry

Nanotechnology – the creation and use of devices and machines on almost an atomic level – is likely to be the driving force behind the next great revolution to benefit humankind. The actual definition of nanotechnology can be quite broad, generally, in scientific and engineering terms, nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter with at least one dimension sized from 1 to 100 nanometers (0.000000001 m). That really does put it on an atomic scale, though the products that can be constructed in this way may be a little larger and can range from microscopic to anything under a millimetre.

While this kind of technology will have applications in many fields, there are likely to be huge advantages in the field of cars and motoring and in the near future, nanotechnology is likely to have a massive impact on the world of driving and vehicles.

It is a fact that nanotechnology can impact so many areas of motoring makes it one of the most important up and coming technologies, and it has attracted the attention of a great number of researchers. This has led to a growing number of breakthroughs in the field, and even more possibilities for this exciting and highly flexible area of science to push different fields of motoring forward. But where is nanotechnology having the greatest influence in car manufacture?

Engines

We ask a lot of our internal combustion engines in terms of both increased performance and decreased size and weight. Those two elements together would usually mean disaster for a high-performance engine, but nano-engineering has allowed us to do both, and safely. Engine blocks, which house the fundamental moving parts of the mechanism, were traditionally made of cast iron, because it was the only practical material that could resist the high temperatures and pressures that were produced in the heart of an engine. But engineers soon found that certain grades of aluminium – which weighs around a third that of cast iron – were found to be suitable too.

But now, engineers have learned how to manipulate aluminium’s on an atomic level – nanoengineering – to create materials that are both stronger while being more lightweight than even the current batch of strong aluminium alloys. This makes them even more fuel efficient while having an increased durability, even in the increasingly hostile conditions found in modern engines. It is a fact that an internal combustion engine performs better and is more efficient at higher temperatures, so this is always a goal for engine designers. We are now also experiencing methods of placing ultra-thin layers of engineering ceramics on metal substrates, creating a surface that is capable of withstanding higher temperatures and wear situations.

Manipulation of either the fundamental structure of the engine block material, or the surface architecture – or both, even – gives designers far greater scope in heat dissertation, wear characteristics, and strength at elevated temperatures.

We have also seen advances in motor oils, particularly in respect to their ability to withstand the punishing environments of modern engines. Nano-manipulation has created a new breed of oils that are able to cling to internal surfaces for longer, meaning that it is in the right place when the engine starts, so that it offers protection right from the start. Nanotechnology oils are also able to put up with much greater use as the tolerances between engine parts decreases and they operate closer together.

Chassis and bodywork

Fuel efficiency, whether the car is petrol, diesel, or electric, is a function of its weight, and even quite small reductions in weight can lead to increase attained mileage significantly. One of the best ways to cut the weight of a vehicle is to use lightweight materials for the structural chassis parts and the exterior, and this is another area where nano-manipulation of materials can create stronger, more lightweight, panels and chassis that are stronger than the ones that they have replaced. Nanotechnology is also responsible for the creation of plastic panels that are able to self-repair and reform themselves following damage.

Batteries

As the next generation of electric vehicles become common on our streets, engineers and researchers are looking at how to lengthen battery life while increasing performance. This has led to the development of lithium-silicon batteries which promise to boost performance and increase longevity. The latest developments in this fast-moving include silicon nanowires that expand and contract as they absorb and shed lithium ions, and tiny nano-structures with carbon shells protecting lithium-rich silicon cores. This combination allows for more efficient energy transfer, meaning that less energy is lost to the environment as heat and more is supplied to the system.

Fuel Cells

Nanotechnology is also improving fuel cells – the clean alternative technology to hydrocarbon fuels. In these, hydrogen is passed over a catalyst to produce hydrogen ions which then go on to reattached to oxygen and result in energy production. The catalysts are increasingly variations of platinum nano-structures to maximise the surface area and harvest the greatest number of hydrogen ions, thereby maximising energy production too.

Paints and coatings

Nano-sized layers of inorganic filters are increasingly being applied to the vulnerable surfaces of car bodies, to help protect them from harsh environments, and self-repair to an increasing extent. The ‘smart’ particles can also help repel dirt and grime, keeping your car looking cleaner, while new developments in orientable surface particles mean that we may soon be able to change the outer colour of our cars by adjusting small electrical charges to them.

Interiors. The use of specialist nanotechnology fabrics is helping to keep the interiors of our cars looking fresh and clean, but also repellent to bacterial affects, creating soft, good looking and completely safe interiors. Once again, developments are being made that will allow the colour of the interior to be changes by reorienting the nano-particles of the material, so that the user can choose any combination of colour that they like, while still having excellent antibacterial properties.

Nanotechnology in cars is becoming big business, and as we find new ways to manipulate materials on an atomic scale, so new applications arise. This will lead to cleaner, quieter, more pleasant cars in the future, and that can only be a good thing.

Note: This is a guest blog by Giles Kirkland, an automotive industry writer and researcher.