Visit any 55+ community in Florida and you will see an army of electric golf carts traversing the streets at all hours of the day. The technology behind these golf carts isn’t anything new, either. This leaves people scratching their heads as to why car makers still have not come up with a commercially viable electric car capable of replacing cars with internal combustion engines. Such questions may soon be answered if scientists working on carbon nanotubes have anything to say about it.
Like carbon fiber composites, carbon nanotubes have the potential of completely changing how we think about automotive manufacturing. Finding a way to utilize both carbon fiber panels and carbon nanotubes in a cost-effective way could eventually lead to elimination of the internal combustion engine in favor of fuel cell or electrically-powered vehicles. But that takes us back to the original question of why car makers have not yet succeeded in bringing electric cars to market.
High Manufacturing Costs
Creating fiberglass golf cart bodies and affixing them to frames with on-board deep cycle batteries is one thing; creating a carbon fiber car with batteries featuring carbon nanotubes is an entirely different matter from a cost perspective. It costs a lot more to manufacture carbon fiber panels and carbon nanotubes.
The manufacturing processes for both products are extremely expensive due to a combination of high energy costs, higher labor costs, and the prohibitively high cost of the manufacturing equipment itself. Car companies could make an entire car frame and body of carbon fiber if they wanted to, but consumers couldn’t afford to purchase the finished product.
Carbon nanotubes are just as cost prohibitive. Functional challenges aside, using carbon nanotubes to their fullest potential within electric car design would make the finished product too expensive for the mass-market. Thus, car makers are still only dabbling in the electric market.
Functional Challenges of Carbon Nanotubes
Carbon fiber panels are used as a replacement for steel and aluminum because they weigh less but are still just as strong. If a mass-produced electric vehicle is to have market appeal, sizable portions of its body and frame will have to be made from carbon fiber and other composites. But that is only half the equation. Car makers also have to deal with the functional challenges of carbon nanotubes.
At the present time, it is believed that carbon nanotubes could be the key to making deep cycle batteries with an effective range high enough to make the electric car the de facto choice among American consumers. Unfortunately, scientists have had a challenging time combining carbon nanotubes with other materials. So even though the nanotubes are highly conductive and more stable than steel, they cannot be easily combined with other materials without sacrificing their benefits.
In theory, carbon nanotubes could replace most of the metal materials in car batteries. But doing so is not practical. The challenge is to find ways to combine carbon nanotubes with other materials in a way that preserves their electrical conductivity and structural integrity. Once someone figures that out, it will be just a short jump to creating batteries with a much longer range.
At Rock West Composites outside of Salt Lake City, carbon fiber is the company’s bread-and-butter. They see a great future for both carbon fiber and carbon nanotubes in the automotive industry. And why not? The biggest inhibitor to composite materials right now is cost. Scientists and engineers will figure it out just as they did with steel and aluminum. And when they do, electric and fuel cell vehicles will become the norm.