Clemson University announced in an October 1 press release that a team of researchers will soon begin on a $5.81 million research project to develop ultra-lightweight car doors using carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic (CFRT) composites. The researchers will start by fabricating a driver’s side front-door assembly for a large original equipment manufacturer (OEM).

A major contributor to the research will be the automotive engineering department at the Clemson University International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR). The principal investigator will be Srikanth Pilla, an assistant professor of automotive engineering at Clemson, who recently gave an overview of what CU-ICAR is working on to ACMA’s Automotive Composites Alliance (ACA)’s Oct. 1 meeting.

By using lightweight composites, the researchers hope to reach their goal of reducing the door’s weight by approximately 43 percent. That goal is important, as automakers all over the United States are constantly looking to find innovative materials and manufacturing techniques to help them meet nationwide corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. In 2012, the Obama administration announced CAFE standards will require fleets of vehicles to average 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

“Not only will we help the auto industry meet a critical deadline, but we will also be educating the next generation of automotive engineers,” said Zoran Filipi, the chairman of Clemson’s automotive engineering department. “We’re creating the model to transform U.S. automotive engineering competitiveness.”

However, since the researchers are using composites to meet lightweighting and fuel economy goals, Pilla says they expect the project to be expensive. According to the press release, Pilla and his team will be mandated to keep the cost increase down to $5 for every pound of weight saved. However, because the overall doors will be lighter, they will use less material, and thus expect to reach their targets. Adding to this challenge is the need to make the doors safe and functional.

“Of course, as we hit these weight and cost targets, we’re going to be careful to not compromise on functional or safety requirements,” Pilla said. “It’s possible we could exceed those requirements, even as we make the door lighter.”

Dr. Melur “Ram” Ramasubramanian, a co-principal investigator on the project, says the fact that a majority of the funding for the project is coming from outside the federal government “sets the stage for future partnerships in composites technology” between the composites industry, the federal government, and academia.

The press release says the technology used to develop the doors could also be used to create other parts of a car and hit the market by 2022.