Advancing Materials Through Advanced Research & Development @ DuPont

Gary S. Vasilash

Jeff Sternberg—a chemist—is helping automakers achieve their lightweight objectives as he is DuPont’s global automotive technology director.

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“I started out as a bench chemist,” says Jeffrey Sternberg. “I am a PhD chemist by training.”

Seems like that work in school and on the bench worked out well for him, as the 26-year DuPont vet is the global automotive technology director for the firm.

Sternberg explains his role, in part: “I identify new opportunities and whitespaces between businesses”—realize that DuPont has more than 100 product families within the automotive space, ranging from structural materials to biomaterials—“and look for larger, transformational opportunities that are too big for what an individual business might think of on its own, something that we might take on at our central R&D operation to move the needle.”

He has more than passing familiarity with DuPont’s central R&D facility, as prior to being named to his present position, he was a manager in materials sciences and engineering there: “I did a lot of work in photovoltaics while I was there.”

There’s one thing that is worth emphasizing about DuPont, something that can have tremendous relevance to the challenges being faced by the global auto industry, as fuel and emissions regulations become more challenging:

“DuPont is committed to science. We are a science company.”

Yes, of course, they are a company that makes and sells products. But at a time when many firms have given up their scientific research activities for the strictly applied, DuPont is still in the business of creating things, things which may end up having applications that weren’t necessarily thought of during development.

For example, there’s Nomex, a fiber that has applicability for flame-resistant clothing. It has good insulating properties, as well, so it is used in electric motors. Kevlar isn’t just for bullet-proof vests. It is also used in tires. DuPont developed Nafion in the 1960s. Sternberg points out that this fluorinated polymer is now getting considerable interest as a membrane for use in fuel cells.

Much of the low-hanging fruit has not only been picked, but at this point canned.

Which brings up a point that needs to be emphasized about the level of collaboration and early involvement that is necessary in order to achieve the sorts of achievements that will be necessary to reach, say, the requirements of 2025, whether it is working with a company like DuPont or other materials suppliers.

There is early involvement, and then there’s early involvement: “Some of our best engagements,” Sternberg says, “are very close collaborations at the R&D level, where we each contribute intellectually and scientifically to solving the problems. One of the good things about automotive is that timelines are relatively long compared to consumer electronics, so we have some time to tackle these very difficult problems and make progress.”

Of course, one of the challenges that a company like DuPont faces is there is probably a greater familiarity and comfort with many people in the auto industry with metals, to say nothing of the fact that there is a tremendous installed base of equipment on factory floors that are metal-specific.

So this gets back to the previous point about early involvement, although involvement that is closer to production, say, than in the R&D labs.

That is, Sternberg points out that polymers are generally application specific, so that there is a need to understand the parameters of the issue being addressed in order to make the best selection: what is the performance required, what kind of size constraints are there, and so on.

“If a customer comes to us with a heavy metal part and says they want exactly that design but they want it made out of plastic, then it is really hard to achieve. Oftentimes—more often than not—there is some redesign of the part required to maintain the structural performance.”

But changes can and are being made.

Sternberg cites an example of a part that is typically made of steel, one that is now generally an ultrahigh-strength steel (UHSS) component, which is certainly considered to be an advanced material: a side impact beam.

DuPont is working with PSA Peugeot Citroen on a side impact beam. The beam is made with a thermoplastic composite material, Vizilon, which employs a continuous glass fiber. It not only meets the crash requirements, but the beam is also 40% lighter than the comparable UHSS component.

It also maintains stiffness performance in temperatures ranging from -40°C to +90°C.

While one might not think of a thermoplastic composite for a side impact, there it is, the sort of change that is being driven by the demand for lightweighting. And were someone to think of going in the non-metal direction, the Vizilon has 5.4 times more energy absorption than a short glass fiber polymer beam, certainly critical for a crash.

On the subject of lightweighting, Sternberg cites the results of a recently conducted study sponsored by DuPont among people in the auto industry, OEM and supplier personnel included. 

And in response to the question “What technology is your company focused on to help the industry meet 2025 standards?”, 49%, by far the leading answer, checked “Lightweighting and use of lightweight structural materials.”

In second place, at 39%, is “Engine efficiency programs.”

“The potential of plastic and composite materials to help them achieve the CAFÉ standard requirements is significant,” Sternberg says.

But what about the landscape between now and 2025: what will it be like for plastics? “I think the growth will be more than incremental,” Sternberg answers. He amplifies: “It has to be more than incremental because that’s going to be necessary to hit the target. But we have the material solutions, so this is not a pipe dream.”

But there is another aspect to this, one that brings us back around to the whole notion of DuPont as a science company: 

“There are always opportunities to develop better materials—better heat resistance, better stiffness. And better costs.”