Re: Research

Columns From: 11/14/2011 Automotive Design & Production


Fruit: Good for the (Car) Body

Consuming fruit on a regular basis can help people lose weight and live healthier. Researchers at Sao Paulo State University ( have found that fruit may have a similar effect on vehicles, so to speak. They have developed a means of using nano-sized fibers from fruits like bananas and pineapples to reinforce plastics. They report that these new plastics are as strong as Kevlar and 30% lighter than many of today’s automotive plastics. Additionally, the new material features greater resistance to heat damage. To create the nano-fibers, the researchers insert the leaves and stems of the fruit into a pressure cooker-like device. The mixture is heated during several cycles to produce a powder-like material, which is embedded into the plastic during processing. While the process is costly, it takes just 1 lb of the nano-fiber to reinforce 100 lb of plastic. Potential applications include dashboards, bumpers and side panels. 

Disastrous to Homes, Beneficial to Cars?

A team of Purdue University ( researchers developing biofuels from wood have discovered a cocktail of enzymes to accelerate its production, and the mixture is based on an insect that’s used wood for its own fuel since prehistoric times: termites. The researchers discovered three enzymes in termite guts, which are produced by the termite itself and via output from symbionts, which are small protozoa which live inside the insect’s digestive system. Further testing found that two of the enzymes are responsible for releasing glucose and pentose sugars, while the third enzyme breaks down lignin, the plant cell walls that block access to the sugars contained in biomass.
In addition to speed benefits, the researchers say the enzymes can break down the lignin and release the sugars at room temperature, which is important because currently, converting woody biomass to biofuel requires high heat inputs, which reduces the overall energy-efficiency equation.
Purdue researchers have discovered enzymes in termite guts to accelerate fuel production from woody biomass.

Not Lithium-Ion, Lithium-Air Batteries

Although lithium-ion is the battery of choice in many of today’s electric vehicles (EVs), lithium-air could be the battery of the future. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; believe they’re onto a solution to make lithium-air batteries a commercial reality. They’ve developed a series of carbon fiber-based electrodes designed to help the batteries store more energy than previous lithium-air batteries and up to 4x more energy than today’s lithium-ion batteries.
Lithium-air batteries are composed of porous lightweight carbon electrodes, rather than the heavier solid electrodes found in lithium-ion batteries. The carbon electrodes store energy by capturing oxygen from air flowing through the battery, and then combining the oxygen with lithium ions to form lithium oxides. MIT’s carbon fiber-based electrodes are even more porous than previously used carbon electrodes, allowing the batteries to more efficiently store energy, thereby extending the range of EVs.
 MIT researchers have developed a carbon-fiber based electrode to help lithium-air batteries pack more energy.

Brain Braking

Researchers from the Berlin Institute of Technology ( are developing a means of initiating faster braking by reading a driver’s brain signals through electroencephalography (EEG). The researchers first studied which parts of the brain are most active during braking. Then they put their results to the test and studied the reactions of 18 participants when faced with emergency braking situations in a driving simulator. As the subjects reacted to each situation, data was collected from the EEG. The researchers found that brain signals were able to detect a driver’s intention to brake 130 milliseconds faster than they take physical action. For drivers traveling at 60 mph, brain braking assist could reduce emergency braking distance by as much as 12 feet, potentially the difference between a bad accident or a close call.

Mad Cow Plastics

A Canadian researcher has developed a means of taking cattle parts deemed unusable due to Mad Cow Disease and turning them into plastic parts for automotive interiors. 
David Bressler, a professor in the University of Alberta’s ( Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science, is using high-pressure water to break down proteins in bovine byproducts such as skulls and spinal cords. They are subsequently cross-linked with other proteins to form an opaque, odorless powder. The powder can then be cast into any shape to form plastics.
It should be noted that these cow discards are not from cows that have been infected by bovine spongiform encephalopathy, but that as a consequence of the 2003 outbreak in Alberta, ranchers have to dispose of those cow parts in landfills.
Although the process is still in development, plastic cow products are currently being tested by The Woodbridge Group, a Canadian car parts manufacturer. Bressler says he hopes the parts can enter the market within the next year.
 University of Alberta researcher David Bressler has developed a way to turn wasted cattle parts into plastic.

Paper Powered Cars?

Newspapers, books, even the magazine you’re holding in your hands right now (assuming you’re not reading this on the Automotive Design & Production website) could soon be fueling your vehicles. Researchers at Tulane University ( have discovered a bacterial strain able to produce butanol, a replacement for gasoline, directly from cellulose-based materials, like paper.
Researchers say the strain, which they call “TU-103,” is the only one presently known that can produce butanol in the presence of oxygen, which is cheaper than having to create an oxygen-free environment for the bacteria.
The researchers say that early experiments converting editions of the Louisiana-based Times Picayune newspaper to butanol have been successful. Presumably, this is not an editorial comment.
 Tulane researchers have discovered a bacterial strain able to produce a fuel, butanol, from paper-based products.

Making Ethanol with Tapioca

When ethanol is produced from corn, one of the consequences of the fermentation process is that there is 6 to 12% water in the solution that needs to be removed before the fuel is useful. So the fuel needs to be “dried.” This is typically done with corn grits and molecular sieves, which both absorb the water. However, researchers at Purdue University ( have discovered a more efficient way of drying ethanol using a nut that’s used to make desserts and teas: tapioca.
The spherical, 100% starch tapioca pearls contain a gelatin starch core where dry starch granules are compiled, thereby increasing the surface area and allowing the nut to absorb up to 34% more water than other ethanol drying methods. Tapiocas can also be dried and reused compared to conven-tional methods which must be disposed of after use.