The automotive industry is constantly in pursuit of innovation. New technology has made the modern car faster, lighter, more comfortable and increasingly efficient. Many technologies have disrupted the field, and nanotechnology is one of the latest and most impactful.
Innovation has perhaps never been more critical to the industry’s success than right now. As of 2018, 67% of people worldwide saw climate change as a significant threat, compared to just 56% in 2013. Since transportation is a substantial contributor to carbon emissions, there’s a rising demand for the industry to become eco-friendly.
Environmental concerns aside, there are more drivers now than ever before, and that number keeps climbing. Automakers have to keep improving to satisfy the needs and desires of their growing consumer base. Nanotechnology provides a solution.
What Is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology refers to the applications of science, engineering and technology that occur on a nanoscale. The nanoscale deals with materials between one and 100 nanometers, so small that they’re invisible to the naked eye. Given this tiny scale, companies haven’t had the technology to work with these materials extensively until relatively recently.
When engineers and scientists work with nanotech, they manipulate the very atoms that make up other materials. They adjust the physical and chemical properties of matter. This level of precision enables tremendous advances and changes in how materials, parts and devices interact with the world.
This field has applications across many industries, but automakers have taken a particular interest in it. It’s no exaggeration to say that nanotech has revolutionized the sector. Here’s how.
One of the most common applications of nanotechnology in the auto industry is in weight reduction. Lighter cars can accelerate faster and are more fuel-efficient, as they take less power to move. Nanotechnology can create novel materials that provide the strength cars need without weighing them down.
While steel and aluminium may be comparatively light for metals, they’re still heavy. With nanotechnology, engineers can design plastics and carbon-based materials that are far lighter than these metals. Car components made from some nanoengineered plastics can be up to 40% lighter than traditional steel parts.
In addition to creating new materials, nanotechnology can improve preexisting ones. Engineers can use nanotech to modify the physical properties of steel or aluminium, improving their relative strength to achieve similar results with less material.
As the world becomes more concerned about climate change, sustainability becomes increasingly crucial for automakers. Since nanotechnology makes cars lighter, it makes them more fuel-efficient, leading to fewer carbon emissions. Nano carbons also have a thermal conductivity five times higher than other materials, reducing heat waste to improve efficiency further.
Nanotechnology has green applications beyond increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel cars, too. Nano engineers have recently developed methods for embedding silicon nanoparticles into graphene battery components to make lithium-silicon batteries. This technology can make batteries last 20% longer per charge, making electric cars a more viable option.
Nanotechnology also paves the way for thinner, more efficient hydrogen fuel cells. These technologies provide another green alternative to fossil fuel cars, producing water and heat as their only emissions. As these sustainable alternatives improve, car owners will have more options for zero-emission vehicles.
Nanoengineered materials are also typically more durable than traditionally manufactured alternatives. Research has shown that nanoparticles substantially improve scratch and abrasion resistance and maintain these properties for longer. These improvements come mostly from the way nanoparticles move as a vehicle’s coating encounters more elements.
As cars face adverse weather or even prolonged UV exposure from the sun, they develop microscopic scratches and cracks in their coating. Nanoparticles tend to fill pores as they appear, clogging up these minute blemishes and protecting the materials underneath. As a result, it takes longer for the elements to affect the metal under the paint, preventing rust and other corrosion.
Nanotech can improve the durability of tires, too. Materials like soot and silica improve rubber’s natural properties, and the size of these particles directly impacts their efficacy. By applying these materials on a nanoscale, automakers can maximize their benefits, making tires more resistant without sacrificing grip.
Another leading application of nanotechnology in the auto industry is in the interior of a car. Vehicle interiors hold a lot of soft materials like felt and leather to make seats more comfortable. While excellent for comfort, these porous surfaces can trap bacteria and other microorganisms that could pose a risk to passengers’ health.
Metallic nanoparticles like silver and titanium oxide have unique antimicrobial properties that can solve this problem. Many of these tiny metal particles destroy the cell membrane of harmful microbes while posing no risk to humans. Hospitals have started using them extensively to disinfect equipment and manufacture drugs, and the auto industry has caught on.
Car manufacturers can coat interiors with these metallic nanoparticles, helping prevent the spread of disease. Similar coatings in a vehicle’s air filter can eliminate harmful microbes from the air, too.
Aesthetics and Comfort
Not all improvements from nanotechnology deal with vehicle performance and safety. Some are less crucial yet still central to the business side of the auto industry. Namely, nanotechnology makes cars more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing.
Some nanomaterial coatings can make surfaces hydrophobic and dirt-repellant. These improvements can help keep cars clean, both inside and outside. The anti-corrosion properties of nanoparticle-infused paints don’t just protect the chassis but maintain the paint’s factory polish. With fewer scratches and blemishes, cars retain their initial beauty for longer.
Since some nanomaterials have tremendous heat conductivity, they’re ideal for heated seats. Seat cushions woven from nanofibers can heat up and cool faster than traditional materials, providing a more comfortable ride.
The Auto Industry Is Becoming Increasingly Tech-Centric
As technology advances, cars are featuring more and more of it. The more tech features a vehicle has, the more likely it is to sell, and some of this tech improves performance as well. Nanotechnology is just the latest in a long tradition of the industry embracing cutting-edge tech.
Nanotech is still relatively new, yet the automotive industry has already capitalized on it. As these technologies become cheaper and more versatile, they’ll see even broader implementation. Nanotechnology could easily revolutionize transportation.