Someday that big rig you see on the highway will be greener – at least in environmental terms if not in actual hue. That’ll be thanks, in part, to composites.
A case in point comes from Volvo Group Trucks Technology. The company, which has its U.S. headquarters in Greensboro, N.C., is the research, engine development and product design arm for the Volvo Group, a leading manufacturer of trucks, busses and construction equipment. Trucks must get leaner for a variety of reasons, says Saeil Jeon, technical lead for materials for advanced technology and research. “The truck needs to lose weight in order to improve fuel efficiency as well as to increase load capacity for the next generation,” he says.
Both customers and the government are pushing for this, Jeon adds. Class 8 tractor-trailers, such as the classic 18-wheeler, make up only five percent of the vehicles on the road but consume 20 percent of the fuel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s not surprising since such trucks averaged only 5.8 miles per gallon in 2014.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed that tractor-trailers cut fuel consumption by 24 percent by 2027. That would result in billions of dollars of savings in fuel costs. Hitting those targets will likely require a combination of engine improvements, weight reduction and better aerodynamics. Additional means to raise fuel efficiency could involve cutting idling time and other operational changes. What’s more, stronger materials allow for an increased load capacity. For the end users of 18-wheelers, the result will be more freight transported for less, a powerful reason for them to push truck manufacturers.
For its part, Volvo also is looking to use materials that provide added benefits. “We want to use materials that have better environmental durability,” Jeon says. Another need, he notes, is for better and easier assembly. That’s important because everything eventually has to be fastened together in an economical way to make the entire tractor-trailer combination. That can be difficult at those points where two very dissimilar materials come together.
Jeon has been working with resin manufacturer Arkema, which has its U.S. headquarters in King of Prussia, Pa., to develop and characterize composite solutions for eventual use in truck body panels. One solution involves recycled carbon fiber. Jeon says that virgin carbon fiber is currently too expensive for ground transportation, but recycled carbon fiber (rCF) has good mechanical properties and is cost effective.