Lighter journeys ahead as Hong Kong University team develops steel for car frames that is just 1mm thick

Innovative 1mm car frames could offer range of environmental benefits

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 May, 2015, 2:29am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 12:07pm

Five years from now the frame of the car you ride in could be made from steel 1mm thick, but it will still give the same protection, if not more, than what is now on the market.

Not only will it be safer, the next generation of steel will also be lighter, achieving better fuel efficiency with lower carbon emissions through by halving the current 2mm-thick frame.

A research team led by a University of Hong Kong academic estimated a private car could weigh 30 per cent less, consume 20 per cent less fuel and produce 20 per cent fewer emissions.

"We made the new steel with special chemical compositions combined with a proper heat treatment," said Dr Huang Mingxin, from the department of mechanical engineering.

He said one of the new steels, known as transformation- induced plasticity steel or Trip, had an ability to resist fracture 50 per cent higher than the best automotive steels now available, while remaining as ductile.

His team is in the process of patenting Trip in the US.

Nano-twinned steel is another strong metal the team has created. Huang said it had a similar tensile strength as Trip, but its ability to resist deformation was much stronger.

The costs of the new steels per tonne were 14 to 28 per cent more expensive than those available now, but Huang said the actual cost in manufacturing a car would be similar.

"The car will be lighter and thinner with the new steels so less material would be used," he said.

Huang predicted it would be at least another five years before industrialisation of the new steels could begin, but their innovation had advanced future targets for automobile materials proposed by the US Department of Energy by 10 years.

"It depends on whether steel manufacturers want to make such investment," he said. "There should not be many difficulties to overcome, as existing facilities could produce the new steels."

Huang's team was among the first in the world to achieve such a breakthrough in automobile materials, the university said.

Huang said researchers in Germany, France, South Korea and the mainland were also "intensively" studying the technology, as these countries all had strong automotive industries.