The transport sector accounts for a significant environmental impact, both when it comes to greenhouse gases and the release of substances such as sulphur. At the same time, the need for efficient transport in an increasingly globalized world has never been bigger. Fortunately, there are technologies that can significantly reduce the transport sector’s environmental impact. New lightweight materials have already begun to make smart travel possible and can contribute even more as the technology improves.

Low weight but good mechanical properties

Materials technology has developed rapidly in recent years. New composite materials have been developed that combine strength with much less weight than steel. Composites consist of a mixture of different materials and usually involve strong but light elements such as titanium, aluminium, fibreglass and carbon fibre. The cost of producing these novel materials are generally significantly higher compared to metal alloys or plastics. However, composites have the advantage of combining low weight with high structural strength fitting not only ski poles and bicycles. These materials could also produce tomorrow’s fuel-powered vehicles.

Environmentally friendly flying

Various composites, often involving carbon, have in recent years been used for aircraft construction. Since jet fuel is expensive, there is a great economic advantage of lighter aircraft. Of course there is also a clear environmental gain with the materials, combining safety with low fuel consumption. Boeing argues for example that its 787 Dreamliner consumes 20 percent less fuel than the 767, which has a similar size, thanks to composites. As the technology evolves, more and more companies are discovering the potential of composites. French aircraft manufacturer Lisa Airplanes has recently launched a two-seater aircraft that consists entirely of lightweight composites.

The T.27 City Car has an energy consumption equivalent to 0.1 litres per 10 kilometres.

Ships made of composites

The shipping industry is also interested in composite materials that can offer both low weight and structural strength. Already ten years ago, the magazine Azom, which reports advances in materials technology, highlighted the fact that composites allow for faster and more energy-saving and smarter transportation. Many modern ships built of steel use ballast, a load often placed in the bottom of the vessel to increase stability. When composite materials are used, it reduces the need to balance the vessels with ballast and thereby reduces the weight on both the hull and ballast.

Future cars?

In the late 1950’s, the British sports car, the Lotus Elite, was built with a fibreglass body. In recent years, other manufacturers like Mercedes, Ferrari and Lamborghini have made use of lightweight and durable strength composites in their cars. The technology to make cars of composites is still relatively expensive, but in recent years the initial investment in the mass production of composite cars has come a long way. McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray recently launched the T.27 city car, which won the Green Rally RAC Future Car Challenge with an energy consumption equivalent to 0.1 litres per 10 kilometres (an emissions equivalent of 37 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre). The T.27 is not yet for sale. Its appearance and design are not the most appealing, but certainly it shows that the car has the possibility of using composite materials to reduce the transport sector’s energy impacts.

This article was published in December 2013