Below is an excerpt from a feature article by MOTOR titled, “Building Materials: Tech firm creates novel alloys that help automakers contend with new challenges.”
The advent of electric vehicles, coupled with more stringent federal gas-mileage requirements, is driving a burgeoning need for so-called “novel materials” that car manufacturers can use to build lighter yet stronger vehicles.
And thanks to advancements in technology, it’s becoming easier, cheaper and less time-consuming to develop those novel materials, says Keith Fritz, director of client solutions at QuesTek Innovations. The materials science and engineering company develops novel materials for many industries, including automotive and aerospace; its clients include Tesla, Space X, Apple, Boeing, General Motors (GM), Audi and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
“The novel-materials revolution is well underway,” Fritz told MOTOR.
Electric vehicles (EVs) have reached a record level of market share percentage and present a number of challenges, such as how to make them lighter, which increases battery range, without losing strength. The same is true for conventional internal-combustion engine (ICE) cars, which must meet tighter federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards, he says.
“There’s always been a rich history of novel materials used in race cars and high-end sports cars,” observes Fritz, who earned a materials science and engineering degree with an emphasis on metallurgy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for General Motors for eight years. “But new emission requirements, as well as new safety standards, are forcing automakers to use novel materials in everyday vehicles.”
As an example, when Fritz left GM in 2018, the automaker was starting to use aluminum (considered a novel material) to make trunk lids for Chevrolet Malibus and Impalas, he says.
“That was unheard of before, except on higher-end cars,” Fritz notes.
QuesTek is considered a pioneer in the field of integrated computational material engineering (ICME), in which complex software programs use physics-based models to predict the performance characteristics of materials.
“It’s a computational approach to designing materials and developing material processes,” Fritz explains. “We can use simulation tools to predict formulations of alloys that can meet the requirements for material properties and performance while eliminating or greatly reducing the amount of rare earth elements required. In my world, that’s about as exciting as it gets.”
QuesTek recently launched ICMD, an ICME platform.
“Our ICMD platform includes all of our models and data,” Fritz says. “Companies can subscribe to it and do their own computational modeling to develop alloys.”
ICME has transformed the materials-engineering field by making it dramatically less time-consuming, less labor intensive and less expensive to develop alloys. Before, researchers and engineers would have to set up trial experiments, actually make alloy samples, process them, analyze their strengths, other properties and characteristics and then perhaps start over again with more experiments.
“You’d be pouring molten metal in foundries, then testing and analyzing sample bars of alloys in a lab,” Fritz says. “It was unbelievably time-consuming and really expensive. Now we have computer software that uses models, based on physics, that can predict things like tensile strength.”