More Fiber for Auto Bodies

The fabric of your life could one day be the fiber of your ride, according to Dr. Abdel-Fattah Seyam. A professor in the Department of Textile and Apparel Technology and Management, Seyam is testing various fibers to see if they could provide a strong, lightweight alternative to using steel and aluminum in automotive parts. "Reducing vehicle weight is one way to dramatically improve fuel efficiency," he says. "Still, we cannot sacrifice safety for lower gas consumption."

Using a three-dimensional weaving process developed by College of Textiles Professor Emeritus Mansour Mohamed, Seyam's research team is creating fabrics of glass fibers that can be molded into any shape, from a chassis to a fender, and then infused with a resin to harden. With funding from the National Textile Center, the researchers run the composite materials through a battery of tests to determine if they can match the performance of metal parts in terms of impact resistance, tensile strength, and ability to withstand shear forces. "The composites dissipate energy better than metal, so they would hold up well in a collision," Seyam says, adding that the glass fiber-resin combination also would provide corrosion resistance to vehicles.

To optimize the performance of the composite materials, the NC State researchers are experimenting with various weave patterns, glass fiber thicknesses, and layers of fabric. Seyam also is working with the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth to determine whether short, recycled fibers dispersed throughout the 3D weave can boost the composite's strength. The researchers either mix the short fibers with the resin or use electrostatic forces to arrange the short fibers in the vertical plane, where Seyam says they can reinforce the resin-rich areas. "If you have fiber within the resin, it can stop cracks from propagating," he says.

"The composites dissipate energy better than metal, so they would hold up well in a collision."

Recycling short fibers isn't the only sustainable initiative Seyam is pursuing. His research team is looking at "green composites" for greener alternatives to glass and epoxy resin. "We're looking for something that is 100 percent natural," he says. "We are using materials that aren't petroleum-based, which reduces costs and limits the environmental impact." The researchers have found that some flax fibers perform as well as glass, and they also plan to test jute, rice straw, and even cotton. Instead of epoxy, they are studying whether soybean-based resin could be used to harden the fabrics. "With natural fibers and resins and 3D weaving technology," Seyam says, "we see intriguing possibilities for the future of automobiles."

 

Woven fabrics can be molded into any shape and infused with a hardening resin, allowing them to be used as lightweight replacements for steel and aluminum components in automobile bodies.

Dr. Abdel-Fattah Seyam watches as glass fibers are woven into three-dimensional fabric in a process patented at NC State.