The disciples of the church of Colin Chapman know that lighter is better. It improves handling, responsiveness and, crucially these days, fuel efficiency. But electric vehicles have to be loaded up with heavy batteries to give them power. So the pragmatists at Volvo thought, "What if we made a trunk lid that doubled as an energy source?"
Volvo has announced what they call a breakthrough for energy storage that could revolutionize future electric cars. It's kind of a no-brainer solution, but one that's probably a lot more complex than it sounds. Because I'm no scientist and I don't want to mess that up, I'll let Volvo explain what their new body panels are made of:
The answer was found in the combination of carbon fibers and a polymer resin, creating a very advanced nanomaterial, and structural super capacitors. The reinforced carbon fibers sandwich the new battery and are molded and formed to fit around the car's frame, such as the door panels, the boot lid and wheel bowl, substantially saving on space. The carbon fiber laminate is first layered, shaped and then cured in an oven to set and harden. The super capacitors are integrated within the component skin. This material can then be used around the vehicle, replacing existing components, to store and charge energy.
Basically, various panels can replace the batteries that would normally be used to power an electric motor in the car, or the 12-volt battery used to power the lights, wipers and stereo. Charging is then done through either regenerative braking or by plugging the car in.
Volvo says its new panels not only charge up more quickly than batteries used in cars today, but that they're also more durable than steel – no doubt thanks to the use of carbon fiber. But the biggest savings might come in how powerful the body panels are.
In the Volvo S80 they retrofitted with these new panels, Volvo says the power coming from the trunk lid alone could replace all the batteries in the car. A strut brace was even powerful enough to replace the 12-volt battery.
They also estimate using this system in place of the batteries in a conventional electric car would yield a 15% weight savings.
Carbon fiber is no longer just the material of supercars – it's what much of the Porsche Cayman-priced Alfa Romeo 4C is made of, after all. Volvo didn't give a timetable for when it expects to see its body panel energy storage put into production, but it's definitely an interesting solution to adding lightness to the cars of the future.
More photos and info in the press release.