Carbon materials are prized for their strength, low density and chemical resilience. The diverse utility of carbon materials has seen them employed in the field of vehicles since the early days of large scale commercial automobile manufacture in the early 1900s. Despite over 100 years of use, few present day drivers are aware of the multitude of carbon components in the cars they drive.
According to the WIPO’s PATENTSCOPE system, one of the earliest vehicular patents relating to carbon traces back to 1911 and describes the use of carbon block conductors as a component of electrically propelled vehicles. In the early 1990s, patents show that conductive forms of carbon were seeing use in vehicle electrical systems in the form of electrode support, contact brushes and power control to name but a few applications. In the present, the rapidly evolving field of electric vehicles combined with advances in graphene technology has led to a variety of patent applications using carbon in the field of batteries.
Carbon fibre is probably the best known carbon material used in cars and vehicles. Many manufacturers use fibre technology as a composite reinforcement material with the intent of reducing the weight of otherwise metal components. Processes for the manufacture of carbon fibre were commercially established by the mid-1960s and typically involve the spinning of a carbon polymer-derived yarn. By the 1970s, patent applications were being filed for carbon fibre in car tyres and aircraft structural components. In a modern vehicle, carbon fibre may find its way into bodywork, seat textiles, or more elaborate applications such as heating elements for in-seat heating.
Carbon black is another common form of carbon and is produced via the incomplete combustion of carbonaceous and petrochemical feedstocks. Carbon black is favoured for its high surface area to volume ratio and deep black colour. The primary application of carbon black is as a reinforcement material. In many plastics, carbon black is added to increase strength and resilience. However, the most common automotive application of carbon black is in rubber components. Tyres, belts and rubber sealants are engineered using carbon black additives to promote favourable mechanical properties.
Even the aesthetic components of a vehicle are not free of the influence of carbon. Many pigments and paints include carbon black simply as a colorant. There is a high probability that the plastics, textiles or paints in your car, particularly if they are coloured black, containautomotpatents carbon black to provide a darker colour.
Activated carbon is similar to carbon black but is instead produced via a process where the combustion of the feedstock is carefully managed to promote the development of porous structures. The activated carbon’s pore profile makes it particularly suitable for adsorbing undesirable liquid and gas components which leads to its use as a low cost air and fuel vapour filtration medium. The pore distribution of activated carbon means that as little as 3 grams may have a surface area equivalent to a football pitch.
In the first four months of 2018 alone, patent applications relating to vehicular carbon technology have been published in the areas of tyres, vehicle running boards, solenoids, boot baskets, emission control, exterior trim and metal-plated conductive fibre components, to name but a few. In view of the current technology race surrounding electric, autonomous and connected vehicles, it seems likely that carbon will continue to find new and exciting applications in the cars we drive.