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In bubble-filled plastic, Ford sees vehicle weight reduction

Ford is investigating the use of a bubble-injected polymer called Mucell to reduce the weight of car components and increase fuel efficiency.
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Written by Andrew Nusca, Former editor on

Researchers at Ford have been investigating the use of bubble-injected polymer to reduce the weight of components used in vehicles, and subsequently, the curb weight of the car itself.

It's called MuCell, and was developed and patented by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Technically referred to as "microcellular foam injection molding," the process is one way the automaker seeks to reduce weight to lower fuel consumption.

If you've owned more than one car over the last decade or two, you've no doubt noticed that vehicle cabins have become quieter, steer more deliberately on the road and have an ever-increasing amount of airbags and electronic equipment.

You've probably also noticed that engines have become bigger and more powerful, with incredible numbers attached to them. (365 horsepower in a stock Ford Taurus? What is this, Daytona?)

All of these experience perks have come at the expense of the vehicle's weight:

  • 1990 Ford Taurus: 3,050 lbs.; 90 to 140 horsepower
  • 2010 Ford Taurus: 4,015 lbs.; 263 to 365 horsepower

This is why you might remember driving ultra-efficient "econobox" cars in the late 1980s that could go 40 to 50 miles per gallon of gasoline. ("What's all the fuss about fuel efficiency?" you've probably asked in recent years. "We had it 20 years ago!")

Which brings us back to MuCell. Now owned by Trexel, the material involves the highly controlled use of gas such as carbon dioxide or nitrogen in its "supercritical state" during the injection molding process. The technique creates millions of uniformly arranged, micron-sized bubbles, and can be applied using a conventional, albeit modified, injection molding machine, reports Green Car Congress.

The appeal? These microscopic bubbles can reduce component weight up to 10 percent without sacrificing the integrity or durability of the non-visible parts the plastic would be used for.

A side benefit: the process also eliminates pack and hold times in the molding and cooling process, reducing production time for this part of the process by 50 percent. It also results in energy savings and reduced carbon emissions.

For now, Ford is merely investigating the technology. (As is Porsche, Volkswagen, BMW, Chrysler, Hyundai and even Hewlett-Packard.) But I'd go so far as to say that this technology marks the moment when the heavy car bubble, well, burst.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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