CPMI, Starfire join GM and DOE in plasma processing of lightweight automotive materials
The Center for Plasma-Material Interactions and local company Starfire Industries have teamed with General Motors Co. and the U.S. Department of Energy to apply plasma processing in producing lightweight automotive materials.
Vehicles built from lightweight materials such as aluminum, magnesium and/or carbon fiber composites can increase fuel efficiency, as compared to current vehicles built from heavier, steel materials. However, it is difficult to weld together automotive parts made from the lightweight materials. A gluing process being considered to bond the parts is aided greatly when first subjected to plasma processing.
“We took two aluminum samples from GM and used the glue that they do in their procedure,” said David Ruzic, CPMI director and Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological Engineering professor. “In one case we did the testing normally and in the other case, we used plasma treatment on the material.”
The plasma treatment creates a chemical, electron-sharing-covalent bond between the atoms of the material and the glue. When Ruzic’s group tested the process by pulling apart the samples after being glued, the non-plasma-treated samples separated along the glued seam. However, the bond in the plasma-treated samples “was so strong it ripped the aluminum. It didn’t break where it was glued but tore the metal!” Ruzic said.
According to Ruzic, the development of plasma at atmospheric pressure as opposed to a vacuum system is becoming more commonplace, making the process more feasible to use in a manufacturing setting.
Starfire Industries builds the microwave power supplies and plamsa torches that automotive makers can use in plasma processing. Co-founded by NPRE alumni Brian Jurczyk and Robert Stubbers, the company is located in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Research Park. Starfire employs 37 people, many of them engineers with PhDs, and the company physically has tripled in size in the past three years.
Under the agreement for this project, Starfire has the option to license university technology, according to Jurczyk.
The 18-month project is being funded with an Emerging Research Exploration Award from the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The industrial partner is providing a full industrial match for the research.
The technology has also leveraged another project for the Department of Defense’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). In this project, a plasma atmospheric torch is used to clean military vehicles, such as ships, airplanes and jeeps, and prepare them for re-painting.
The plasma technique is an alternative to the current method of using chemicals to clean the vehicles, provide anticorrosive treatment, and make the vehicles’ surfaces receptive to paint. The plasma processing’s advantage is that it doesn’t produce hazardous chemical waste.
The SERDP project is being conducted in conjunction with the university’s Applied Research Institute.
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