Mass Transit is Rapidly Changing through New Materials

Mass transit is rapidly evolving as strategic innovations make mobility better, faster, and stronger. Through scientific breakthroughs and research, next-gen transportation is producing more efficient vehicles.

In a recent interview with Wired magazine, Jim Toth, VP of Technology at TE Connectivity and an expert in advanced materials, outlined ways that scientific research is impacting both transportation and the world at large. Toth has devoted his career to transportation infrastructure R&D, and he suggests that research informs design at the same time that engineering needs direct research. “It’s an iterative process. People go to labs with an idea of the problem they’re trying to solve. But more often than not, the problem they wind up solving is not the one they started with. There’s serendipity, and sometimes what you find meets a need that people didn’t anticipate.”

mass transit

The introduction of self-driving capabilities has come about as manufacturers are now able to insert computers into their vehicles. First sensors became more powerful, then visual recognition followed. While sensors exist throughout today’s vehicles, “You couldn’t do that even 10 years ago,” Toth reminds us, “because it was too expensive.” He says that today’s high speeds of communications through sensors allow cars to talk to each other instantaneously, and robust high-speed communication systems in cars available through sensors allow better communication than ever before. That, in turn, gives drivers the tools to make decisions faster.

Lightweighting & Stronger Mass Transit Materials

But other, less obvious changes are taking place in mass transit, too. Mass transit of the future is about building lighter vehicles and structures but also stronger ones, and there are many possibilities with lightweighting. Lightweighting is a process that utilizes smaller amounts of material for manufacturing and saves embodied energy, which then decreases environmental impact. One way those goals are becoming a reality is from structures made with 3-D printing, which can produce what Toth calls “some pretty novel porous structures—like latticework.” With inherent strength, such structures can cut out 50 percent of the weight because of a latticework skin underneath. “We can also model structures and materials now, experiment on the computer,” Toth notes, “which is a hell of a lot faster.”

Engineers are also currently trying to strengthen materials by turning to nanotubes. A carbon nanotube (CNT) has a diameter measuring about one-billionth of a meter, or about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. CNT’s bond between atoms is quite very strong, and the tubes can have extreme aspect ratios. A carbon nanotube can be as thin as a few nanometers yet be as long as hundreds of microns. Since the discovery of metals encapsulated into multi-walled CNTs, such sheathed structures have been developed using various synthetic strategies for producing the unique structure of nanowires sheathed inside nanotubes. The nanowire materials vary from metals to alloys, from semiconductors to insulators, and even metal–semiconductor heterojunctions. In recent years, nanostructure R&D has mainly focused on in-situ manipulation, property analysis, and applications.

R&D Opens Up Many New Possibilities For Mass Transit

Other forms of carbon, like graphene and composites, also can add strength to materials destined for mass transit. New composite materials choices, too, are available within the transportation infrastructure and are already in common use in airplanes. For example, with more conductor-per-unit weight in aluminum, some manufacturers are switching away from copper wire.

Moreover, programs like the Materials Project are offering new directions for the future of mass transit. Harnessing the power of supercomputing and state of the art electronic structure methods, the Materials Project provides open web-based access to computed information on known and predicted materials as well as powerful analysis tools to inspire and design novel materials. In this and other endeavors, researchers model materials and predict properties, such as the potential of ceramics for the next generation of batteries.

Scientific research is affecting travel and mass transit in the near term primarily through lighter weights, helping vehicles to be powered with renewables, and electrifying mass transit so that it is ecofriendly.

Photo Credit: smaedli via / CC BY

Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+