Glassy-eyed Optimists or Material Geniuses?

Columns From: 5/1/2002 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Mr.

See-through A-pillars

If Dynaglass performs as expected, ideas like see-through A-pillars will move out of the concept realm and into reality.

In the movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Mr. Scott and Dr. McCoy trade the formula for "transparent aluminum" to a plastics maker for a large quantity of his material so they can save some whales–and 23rd century earth. However, fact may be well ahead of fiction in the 21st century, based on initial tests of a polymerized "glass" invented by Russian scientists.

"The technology was under development as a low-cost substitute for the ceramics used on the nose cones of Soviet nuclear missiles," says Peter Gerardi, science manager for Dynelec Corp. (Columbus, OH). "When the USSR collapsed, the scientists involved in the program were given the rights to the project in the hope that it would be possible to commercialize the science, and bring jobs to Russia."

A chance encounter between Dynelec CEO Roy Baldwin and the Russian scientists in 1995 brought the two sides together; the Russians asked for Baldwin's assistance in patenting the idea and developing strong-glass technology for commercialization. Within a few months, it became apparent the material–which can be made in a thin flexible film, can be produced using the same basic process as float glass, and withstands greater pressures than steel–also had the ability to store energy. And not just a little. When used to produce a battery, it can store perhaps as much as 30 times more energy than a conventional lead-acid battery of the same size.



"In the process of making different samples of the glass," says Gerardi, "the Russian scientists noticed they were getting stray electrical currents from the glass." Unconvinced that it was the material and not a fault of their equipment, they thoroughly checked their gear for anomalies that might account for the unusual readings. They found none.

"When we use our depletion process on sodium dioxide (NaO2) glass, for example," says Gerardi, "electrical fields are used to remove the sodium. Once the material solidifies, it wants to attract electrons to replace those that were removed." This makes it a "positive charge sponge" that can be used to store electricity. How much of a charge can be stored is as yet unknown. Though a typical lead-acid battery has an energy density of 20 Watt-hours/kg, Gerardi says Dynelec hopes to reach 150 Watt-hours/kg in its initial experiments with what it now calls "Dynaglass." At this level, the first market for Dynaglass batteries would be as a power source for portable devices like laptop computers and cell phones. "Once we've reached that plateau," he says, "we're pretty sure we can gradually raise power density to 1,000 Watt-hours/kg. And at that level, an electric vehicle becomes practical."

All things being equal, a 2,000-lb. lead-acid battery pack would be replaced by 300 lb. of the 150 Watt-hour/kg. Dynaglass batteries. At the higher density level, battery weight would plummet to about 40 lb. for similar output. Therefore, claims Gerardi, a few hundred pounds of batteries would dramatically increase driving range at the higher power density. In addition, initial research shows these batteries have nearly unlimited recharging cycles, are inexpensive to produce, and require little or no maintenance. The positive attributes don't stop there. "Because Dynaglass can be molded, and has such a high strength-to-weight ratio, you could make the floor of the trunk, part of the floorboard, or another part of the vehicle your battery," says Gerardi.


Time + $

Commercialization of Dynaglass will require plenty of time, money, and research, Gerardi concedes. Plus, the material's breakdown voltage might be higher than anticipated, increasing the amount of material necessary to make an acceptable battery. That's why Dynelec is looking to produce a hybrid that layers its polymeric glass over another material–like plastic–to produce structural glass for use in homes and buildings in hurricane-prone areas. From there, it's a short trip to making glass that is as strong or stronger–but thinner–than regular glass for both residential and automotive use. "I'm not sure the glass replacement industry would like it, but we could make a windshield much less prone to chipping and cracking for a price that's only 10% to 15% more than regular float glass," claims Gerardi.


Body panels?

Asked if it might not be possible to retain the same glass thickness, and use its increased strength to improve a vehicle's structural rigidity, Gerardi answers in the affirmative. "The fixed glass would have the strength of a steel panel at a weight closer to that of aluminum," he says. "Conceivably you could build vehicles without steel roof pillars, or even replace steel body panels with Dynaglass, especially since you can color it without any degradation in its physical properties." So much for telling the officer that you "couldn't see the other car" after an accident.

These body panels could be formed by stamping semi-molten material, or built in layers using a thin film. Dynelec is investigating using layers of Dynaglass to make bottles, and could adapt this technology to cars. In the same way that a beverage maker would extrude a bottle from a roll of Dynaglass, automakers and suppliers could use the process to produce interior and exterior panels, batteries, or any number of other items. With the ability to use different materials in the glass production process (silica, sodium, potassium, titanium, aluminum, etc.) to create unique properties, Dynelec even envisions making engine blocks and pistons out of Dynaglass. "We're still very early in the discovery process, and don't know exactly what's feasible with this material," says Gerardi. "However, our initial results–including some validation work done on Ohio State University's scanning electron microscope–tell us the technology works as advertised." It will take time, money, luck, and the help of some technology partners to bring Dynaglass into production.