Mind & Matter


Making Trains Lighter

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A train diesel engine housing made of a polyurethane-based composite. Image by Fraunhofer ICT.


The path to resouce efficiency can take many directions. In the transportation sector, lightness rules. Materials such as metals are being replaced by lighter-weight polymer composites in train and car bodies, for example, because of the fuel savings that result. However, such materials must be proven to hold up to heavy abuse.

Scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology ICT have recently developed a polyurethane-based composite material to replace metal panels in locomotive bodies. The result of a research collaboration with several other organizations including the Institute for Vehicle Concepts, the new sandwich material is composed of a glass-fiber-reinforced exterior and paper-honeycomb interior.

"To demonstrate the material, we manufactured a component that is subject to significant stresses and which has to fulfill a number of requirements—the diesel engine housing for a train," says ICT researcher Jan Kuppinger. "By using this new material, we can reduce the component’s weight by over 35 percent—and cut costs by 30 percent."

This development bodes well for the future of fuel-efficient railway transportation. However, given the environmental limitations of a petroleum-based thermoset such as polyurethane—not to mention the likely difficulties of recycling such a "monstrous hybrid" composite—one wonders if the ICT scientists could develop a composite panel made of disassemblable biopolymers. After all, Henry Ford developed a soy-based auto body six decades ago. Given this direction, the path to resource efficiency could include considerations for effective material life cycles as well as fuel savings.



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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.