Visionaries seek polymers
Utopias to prepare for the future
More and more unusual projects are emerging from the computers of engineers who are often clearing paths that will benefit the next generations. Let us not forget that had a young Russian scientist had not believed it possible to propel a long tube into space in the early twentieth century, Man would never have landed on the moon in that same century.
Researchers burn rubber
Revolutionising the industryby designing new materials has always been one of the spearheads of plastics producers and academic research centres. Researchers at IBM's Almaden Research Centre in San Jose announced three years ago that they had developed a new class of polymers that could revolutionise the industry. These new materials possess extraordinary properties because they are almost as sturdy as metal while retaining the lightness and elasticity of certain plastics. However, this new material's most surprising characteristic is the fact that it is self-repairable: in the event of breakage, the two separate pieces can simply be pressed together and they will become one again. Finally, the last decisive advantage is that these new polymers are easily recyclable. And what about the new pigments that have been developed by a former research director at the CNRS (French national research centre)?
These pigments simply change colour when they detect an impact, a change in temperature, the presence of a gas or a solvent, and more. How do they work? It is difficult to say since their functioning is a well-kept secret. However, the discovery is so great that Airbus has stated that it is very interested in using this discovery.
Composites in seventh heaven
The flying car is about to become a dream forgotten to history. No-one much believes in it anymore, except a few die-hards who have a hard time demonstrating its benefits for humankind. The future seems to involve redefining the aircraft. And there are many projects aimed at achieving this. As a proof of their seriousness, Airbus hopes to begin test flights of its flying taxi in the coming months. It should look like a kind of giant, autonomous drone with a cabin. The race for innovation is focused on composite materials made using polymer resins. The polymer/carbon resin is currently the material offering the best stiffness to weight ratio. This is why Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip, which is destined to venture beyond the terrestrial atmosphere shortly, is also entirely made from this resolutely high-tech material.
Meanwhile, an even more advanced project can be found in Germany, where four young engineers in aeronautics successfully completed the first test flight of the Lilium Jet, a vertical take-off two-seater capable of making a 300km flight at 300km/h. The Lilium Jet is equipped with 36 electric motors, 24 of which are located on the rear edge of the two wings inside the movable shutters, which is what makes the concept so original. The first flight took place in April and was a great success. Although the mode of propulsion is original in and of itself, the aircraft's design is no less original given that it is made entirely of carbon fibre composite materials. The choice of these materials was entirely deliberate since weight reduction has all but become a religion for its designers.
Polymers for landing off the beaten track
Taking huge airships into the skies is an old dream that refuses to go quietly into the night. The Hindenburg crash in New York in 1937 is still burned into many minds. However, the causes for the crash have long been known: a high density of static electricity and leakage of dihydrogen, a highly flammable gas used to inflate the airship. Avoiding another such catastrophe requires filling the airship with helium, a gas that is certainly rarer but inert. Airships are formidable craft: they are powerful and can carry several hundred tons of cargo over more than 20,000 km at a speed of over 200km/h. They are obviously slower than airplanes, but much quicker than freighters. Another advantage they have is that they can alight almost anywhere and do not require heavy infrastructure. They are therefore ideal for humanitarian and even military missions. Until recently, certain technological hurdles still had to be overcome.
Dozens of tonnes of helium need to be compressed and the textile envelope must be completely gastight. To achieve this, engineers have turned to polymers. Modern envelopes are a mix of different plastics: elastomers first and foremost, but also carbon/corecork/resin sandwiches for the parts most subject to high pressures. This "assembly" is so conclusive that the American Aeros company has used it to develop its landing system which is made up of large bags arranged in a rectangle around the base of the airship, acting as a suction cup once an air vacuum has been created. This landing gear is untearable and resistant to any asperities on the ground, making it possible land the airship anywhere, on all types of terrain.
Trucks drop weight
Trucks currently still account for close to 90% of land freight transport.In fact, this market is expected to grow by 30% by 2030. Therefore, designing vehicles that are more environmentally-friendly is a matter of urgency. A team of Russian designers working with truck manufacturer Kamaz recently presented their Kamaz Flex Futurum project to the press. The project is an extensible truck capable of stretching from 7.5 metres to 20 metres to adapt to the volume of goods transported. It operates on hydrogen and is therefore 100% ecological. Although it only exists on drawing boards for now, there is no doubt that polymers will be the material of choice used to manufacture the extensible part of this revolutionary truck. We will not be seeing it on our roads anytime soon as the designers hope to start producing them by 2040.
In a different style, the American giant Walmart, a leading retailer in North America, has developed a new truck concept for its fleet with the aim of reducing CO2 emissions. The objective: to be as aerodynamic and light as possible. The trailer would therefore be made of fibreglass/epoxy resin, an inexpensive material which is lighter than steel.
Printed polymers for better adherence
Last spring, Michelin, the world's leading tire manufacturer, caused quite a stir by presenting its vision of the tire of the future.Much more than a tire, it is actually a one-piece wheel that replaces the rim and tire. As it does not contain pressurised air, the wheel cannot be punctured and it draws its strength from its alveolar structure inspired by coral. The wheel is 3D-printed using a material that includes rubber, of course, but also biopolymers from bamboo and even orange peel and various recycled plastics. However, the wheel's most surprising feature is its ability to be retreaded. Michelin imagines being able to reprint a new tread on the circumference of the wheel when it is worn out, or simply in order to adapt it for use in different climates and terrains. The Vision Concept will thus be able to have a shallow tread for the summer months, a deeper tread for the winter, or even crampons for off-roading. In addition, 3D printing technology is additive, i.e. it only adds the amount of material it needs, where it is needed, without waste or loss.
The hydrogen car finally on rails
The hydrogen car has been the subject of much talk! These vehicles would most assuredly be ecological. The only problem is that hydrogen gas is highly flammable and therefore very difficult to transport safely. Current fuel cell vehicles do not burn hydrogen, but chemically mix it with the oxygen in the air to produce electricity. Hydrogen is stored in expensive and highly pressurised tanks. Researchers around the world are looking for a way to better store it so that it can be used more widely as a fuel source. A team from Waseda University in Japan has successfully developed a new polymer from fluorene. This flexible polymer can be moulded and has the ability to bind hydrogen at room temperature. Once heated to 80°, it releases hydrogen molecules safely.
In the near future, researchers believe they will be able to design a container measuring just a few cubic centimetres that could be easily transported and that would simply need to be connected to the vehicle's engine once the vehicle's tank has been filled with gas. A tank hardly bigger than a mobile phone. The future of transportation remains surprising. One thing is certain, only a few of these projects will ever see the light of day, but they do show how researchers are bubbling with excitement to find solutions, and polymers have been chosen to contribute to those solutions. The lights have most definitely gone green for this industry.