New Composite Material Boosts Electric Vehicles

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ONRL) used new techniques to create a composite that increases the electrical current capacity of copper wires, providing a new material that can be scaled for use in ultra-efficient, power-dense electric vehicle traction motors.

The research is aimed at reducing barriers to wider electric vehicle adoption, including cutting the cost of ownership and improving the performance and life of components such as electric motors and power electronics. The material can be deployed in any component that uses copper, including more efficient bus bars and smaller connectors for electric vehicle traction inverters, as well as for applications such as wireless and wired charging systems.

To produce a lighter weight conductive material with improved performance, ORNL researchers deposited and aligned carbon nanotubes on flat copper substrates, resulting in a metal-matrix composite material with better current handling capacity and mechanical properties than copper alone.

Incorporating carbon nanotubes, or CNTs, into a copper matrix to improve conductivity and mechanical performance is not a new idea. CNTs are an excellent choice due to their lighter weight, extraordinary strength and conductive properties. But past attempts at composites by other researchers have resulted in very short material lengths, only micrometers or millimeters, along with limited scalability, or in longer lengths that performed poorly.

The ORNL team decided to experiment with depositing single-wall CNTs using electrospinning, a commercially viable method that creates fibers as a jet of liquid speeds through an electric field. The technique provides control over the structure and orientation of deposited materials, explained Kai Li, a postdoctoral researcher in ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division. In this case, the process allowed scientists to successfully orient the CNTs in one general direction to facilitate enhanced flow of electricity.

The team then used magnetron sputtering, a vacuum coating technique, to add thin layers of copper film on top of the CNT-coated copper tapes. The coated samples were then annealed in a vacuum furnace to produce a highly conductive Cu-CNT network by forming a dense, uniform copper layer and to allow diffusion of copper into the CNT matrix.

Using this method, ORNL scientists created a copper-carbon nanotube composite 10 centimeters long and 4 centimeters wide, with exceptional properties. Researchers found the composite reached 14% greater current capacity, with up to 20% improved mechanical properties compared with pure copper.

By embedding all the great properties of carbon nanotubes into a copper matrix, we are aiming for better mechanical strength, lighter weight and higher current capacity. Then you get a better conductor with less power loss, which in turn increases the efficiency and performance of the device. Improved performance, for instance, means we can reduce volume and increase the power density in advanced motor systems,” said Tolga Aytug, lead investigator for the project.

The findings are reported in the journal ACS Applied Nano Materials.


Adaptive Materials

Engineers at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and the University of Maryland have developed a technique that causes a composite material to become stiffer and stronger on-demand when exposed to ultraviolet light. This on-demand control of composite behavior could enable a variety of new capabilities for future Army rotorcraft design, performance and maintenance.

ARL‘s Dr. Frank Gardea, a research engineer, said the focus of the research was on controlling how molecules interact with each other. He said the aim was to “have them interact in such a way that changes at a small size, or nanoscale, could lead to observed changes at a larger size, or macroscale.”

Dr. Bryan Glaz, chief scientist of ARL‘s Vehicle Technology Directorate said “an important motivation for this work is the desire to engineer new structures, starting from the nanoscale, to enable advanced rotorcraft concepts that have been proposed in the past, but were infeasible due to limitations in current composites. One of the most important capabilities envisioned by these concepts is a significantly reduced maintenance burden due to compromises we make to fly at high speeds”, he said. The reduced scheduled maintenance of future Army aviation platforms is an important technological driver for future operating concepts.

Army researchers imagine a rotorcraft concept, which represents reactive reinforcements that when exposed to ultraviolet light will increase the mechanical behavior on-demand. The engineers said control of mechanical behavior could potentially lead to increased aerodynamic stability in rotorcraft structures.

The enhanced mechanical properties with potentially low weight penalties, enabled by the new technique, could lead to nanocomposite based structures that would enable rotorcraft concepts that we cannot build today,” Glaz said.

The joint work, recently published in Advanced Materials Interfaces (DOI: 10.1002/admi.201800038), shows that these composite materials could become 93-percent stiffer and 35-percent stronger after a five minute exposure to ultraviolet light. The technique consists of attaching ultraviolet light reactive molecules to reinforcing agents like carbon nanotubes. These reactive reinforcing agents are then embedded in a polymer. Upon ultraviolet light exposure, a chemical reaction occurs such that the interaction between the reinforcing agents and the polymer increases, thus making the material stiffer and stronger.