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Nanotechnology Applications in Electric and Autonomous Vehicles


Nanotechnology Applications in Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

 

The automotive industry is one commercial sector where nanotechnology could, and is starting to, make a big impact. Many people think of using nanomaterials in the chassis of regular automobiles, and whilst this is true, there are many areas within the electric and autonomous vehicle sectors where nanotechnology could play a big part. In a recent article, we described how graphene-based Li-ion-ultracapacitors could offer one route to solving the charging/discharging issues of electric vehicles (EVs), but the potential is much more widespread than this one example.

 

If we first look at EVs, the main area is in the energy storage systems used. There are many issues with current EV batteries which has resulted in slow charging times and ineffective discharge rates. This means that they are not a viable option for everyone at the moment—especially those who drive long distances regularly. There are many solid-state nanomaterials that have been produced which show much better charge and discharge rates than the current commercial standard. However, not all these materials can be scaled-up commercially and many need to be proven before companies will trust their use—especially when it comes to long-term safety. Nevertheless, there is still a lot of potential for nanotechnology in EVs.

 

Nanotechnology-inspired rechargeable batteries and fuel cells are always being brought out of academia and trialled by industry. Whilst finding the balance between performance and scalability needs to be perfected, it is obvious to many that nanotechnology is likely to be the main way by which EVs are going reach the much-needed (i.e. higher) energy storage levels. The nanomaterial which will make the major breakthrough remains to be seen, but current candidates range from graphene, to more advanced lithium composites, nanoscale silicon, niobium tungsten oxides, and many in between.

 

Why will nanotechnology be able to bring about significant advances in the EV space? The answer is simple—you can store a lot more energy into a battery that uses nanomaterials (or materials with specific nanoscale architectures), because the relative surface area is greater, the ion migration pathways are reduced, and the electrochemical reactions are more efficient.

 

Moving on to autonomous vehicles. Whilst more efficient batteries are something that could also benefit autonomous vehicles, we’re going to focus on different aspects. At the heart of any autonomous vehicle is a vast array of sensors. Nanomaterials are known to significantly improve the sensing capabilities of many different types of sensor, and this is no different for the sensors in autonomous vehicles. On the sensor front, LiDAR is one very important type of sensor and nanotextured materials have already shown that they can capture more photons than other materials, which leads to more accurate mapping of the terrain around the vehicle. Another application is nano-inspired coatings. More specifically, coatings which absorb certain wavelengths of light. These types of coatings can be applied to various objects—in defined patterns—within built-up areas, so that the patterns can be read by the sensors on the autonomous vehicle to determine where the vehicle is and provide more advanced navigation controls.

 

Aside from the parts that are specific to autonomous and electric vehicles, nanotechnology can be used in parts that are used for any automobile. These include the body of the car to improve the impact resistance and a decrease in the weight. Other areas which are currently being developed that are applicable to all vehicles (including autonomous and electric vehicles) include incorporating nanomaterials into tyres to improve their wear resistance, tear resistance, abrasion resistance and grip, as well as coatings that can improve the scratch resistance of the paintwork, and sensors that are used to monitor the interior of the vehicle. Graphene is even being trialled in road surfaces, and whilst it isn’t an aspect of a vehicle itself, it is something that could potentially increase the lifetime

of the tyres used in autonomous and electric vehicles by being less abrasive on the tyres—because the graphene-enhanced road is more resistant to wear, and a lot of wear usually makes roads more bumpy and sharper (as well as creating loose chippings and potholes) that can affect the performance and longevity of tyres.