The gauntlet has been dropped.
The White House has doubled-down on its drive for fuel efficiency, setting a new 54.5 miles per gallon standard for cars and light trucks by 2025. This means combustion, electric and hybrid vehicles are now primed for a decade-long war to see which technology can best meet the challenge.
With electric Teslas speeding down the highways and the new Toyota (IW 1000/8) Prius boasting 50 miles per gallon, it may seems like the standard combustion engine is already out of the race. But don't give up on it yet—the old technology has a friend in the fight: new advances in composite materials.
Composites aren't new, of course. They've been used for decades in the aerospace and automotive industries, resulting in remarkable advances in strength-to-weight ratios, hardness and heat resistance.
Today, bringing these traits into the engine by way of titanium or ceramic-based composites is translating into big jumps in fuel economy and engine efficiency.
"We're seeing some great developments in the internal gas engine that we didn't see before because of the competition with the hybrids and electric vehicles," explains Patrick Redington, director of application engineering, Saint-Gobain Abrasives North America (IW 1000/79).
"There's a race on to get these engines more efficient," he says. "That race will involve new materials, new composites and include finer tolerances."
To Kennametal Inc. (IW 500/327) CEO Carlos Cardoso, this move to harder, stronger composites is a natural evolution of the technology.
"Combustion engines have to become more efficient by running hotter so they burn all of the fuel," he explains. "As they run hotter, the materials have to have different properties." Hence the explosion of metal matrix composite research.
The trick from there, he says, is to tool these composite engine components with finer precision than ever before, creating a tight-fitting, super efficient power system at the heart of the autos.
This moves the burden of fuel efficiency off the shoulders of the auto engineers and onto those of the machine tool and grinding industries as they explore new processes to get through these hard-to-machine materials.
To learn how this move is impacting the machine tool industry, click here.