New insulation materials may sound like science fiction, but they’re just getting started.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) has awarded a $3 million contract to researchers at Cornell University and the University of Minnesota to develop the first materials that can help create a car insulation that is strong, light, and flexible.
The team, led by Cornell’s Nicholas W. Farr and the National University of Singapore’s Robert G. Craymer, hopes to create the first “nanocomposite” material that can hold up to 30 percent of the volume of a conventional insulation sheet and withstand high temperatures, extreme cold, and vibration from road traffic.
“It is a very exciting time for car manufacturers,” Farr told Business Insider.
“We have developed a material that could potentially replace many of the existing insulation products in the market.
The benefits of this material are very obvious, it’s lightweight, it is flexible, it holds up to high temperatures and extreme cold.”
The researchers’ materials, which they call “nanoscale carbon nanotubes,” can be made of carbon fibers, glass, or other materials, and the materials can be combined to create even more versatile and durable insulation.
The materials also have high surface area, which means they can be used in a variety of applications.
The materials have been applied to the exterior of some of the world’s biggest cars, including Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi, and have also been used in some of its less famous products like the BMW X5, BMW X6, and Porsche Cayenne.
“The idea is to use this material to design the material that is optimal for the specific use you want,” Farder said.
“For example, in the interior of a vehicle, you might want to design a material to be used for a high-density, lightweight insulation layer on the rear end.
The material that will be most beneficial for that is carbon nanostructures, because they can withstand very high temperatures.”
The company behind the project, called the Nanotechnology and Engineering Research Group, plans to finish their initial tests with a larger group of researchers this year.
“They’re trying to find the right material to make a material with a specific use, which is the front bumper of a car,” Farris said.
“There are many materials that have been tried out that are very good at protecting the interior from extreme temperatures, but you need to be careful because they are very flexible and can deform,” he added.
Farr and Crayer said the material they are developing is a form of polyamide, which consists of two layers of carbon and a polymeric compound called a carbonyl group.
The two layers are bonded together using chemical bonds, which allow the carbon fibers to conduct electricity.
The material also has a low melting point, which makes it resistant to extreme heat and extreme temperatures.
“We’ve found that this material is incredibly durable and can be applied to a variety [of] applications,” Crayner said.
The researchers have also tested it in a “lightweight” material called Nanopentanoic and “light” material known as “titanium dioxide,” both of which are currently being used for high-performance cars.
“Our hope is that this will be used to make the next generation of car insulation,” Crammer said.FARris, who was a research scientist in the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) program at Cornell, added that the materials could be used not just to build more efficient cars, but also to make more efficient buildings.
“This material could be put on the roof of a new building and it will provide a much stronger structural element to hold the roof up and protect the interior,” he said.
According to Farr, the materials will also help to build buildings that are more energy efficient.
“The main application is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he explained.
“This material will help make cars and buildings more energy-efficient.”
The material is currently being tested in the lab with carbon nanocrystals, which are small, lightweight sheets of carbon.
“It is an incredible challenge to make carbon nanowires that are stable in cold environments and that will withstand extreme cold,” FARris said, “but the challenge is making them shrink so they don’t break and melt in the cold environment.”
Farr said the team hopes to finish the project by 2021.