Alex Zúñiga
Research Group Leader of Nanotech and Device Designing and of the Lightweighting materials and sustainable manufacturing processes
Tec de Monterrey
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Nanotechnology Adds Value, Solves Problems

By Sofía Garduño | Mon, 07/18/2022 - 17:03

Q: How are electrification and efficiency trends driving innovation in raw materials and manufacturing operations?

A: Most companies are trying to reach zero emissions by 2050. By prioritizing sustainability and the creation of new materials and processes, the automotive industry will be able to produce EVs and reach those zero-emission goals.

The circular economy and the recycling of materials are essential for the achievement of electrification goals but we also need new materials that reduce the weight of components, specifically EV batteries. This is an enormous challenge because we have to come up with new components while we fulfill standards and regulations.

We also need to implement new manufacturing technologies. While many are interested in additive manufacturing, it currently cannot fulfill industrial requirements due to its low-volume production processes. However, companies are trying to generate new processes to achieve high-volume production using additive manufacturing. 

Q: There are concerns around nanotechnology's impact on the environment and human health. How is the field progressing toward sustainable nanomaterials?

A: Nanotechnology adds more value than problems. Currently, there are many initiatives addressing toxicology issues. A research team in Mexico is studying toxicology in the medical application of nanotechnology, for example.

We need to use nanotechnology to manipulate or develop new materials. Global companies are using nanotechnologies to develop fully recyclable materials with enhanced properties. Nanotechnology could help material recycling efforts since we can manipulate physical structures on a molecular level. We also add nanostructures that come from natural resources, such as biological nanofibers that are used to strengthen the physical properties of components. For example, we can use nanomaterials with a particle size in the nanometer range, which affect neither humans nor the environment. Overall, nanotechnology offers many advantages to humans.

Q: How can nanotechnology be applied to improve efficiency, reduce costs and make EVs more sustainable?

A: Developing lasting batteries is essential. The challenge is to increase battery life and vehicle efficiency. With nanotechnology, we are developing new materials that take advantage of the porosity and the fragile structure of some materials to increase the capacity and efficiency of batteries. These efforts aim to generate long-lasting batteries and reduce their weight. By achieving the latter, we will be able to increase the autonomy of EVs.

Sustainability also plays an important role because the automotive sector demands eco-friendly manufacturing processes and recyclable components. Hydrogen has been globally used to make EVs more sustainable. The problem in Mexico is that we do not have many related initiatives.

The automotive sector is looking for new materials that can improve the capability and strength of vehicles, while reducing their overall weight. For this, we are exploring new technologies and developing hybrid composite materials, which are the result of a combination of carbon fibers and metallic components. With these materials, we can develop components that can reduce weight and address structural and durability issues. We are also working on force composite materials for the aerospace industry. We want to create materials that are mechanically efficient and provide high conductivity and thermal dissipation. We are working with a global electric company to develop materials to reduce the size and weight of some vehicle parts. If successful, this project will have a significant impact on EVs.

Q: What efforts are needed to boost the transformation of the automotive industry in Mexico through nanotechnology and innovation?

A: Before, our main challenge was to convince leaders in the automotive industry that nanotechnology offers a competitive advantage. This is widely known now.

We have been working with an engine manufacturer that is concerned about the fading prevalence of internal combustion engines. For this reason, the company wants to create new products that can add value to EV manufacturers by developing materials to replace aluminum with hybrid composites. Other companies are exploring replacing thermoset materials with thermoplastic. At Tec de Monterrey, we created thermoplastic materials with very similar properties to thermoset materials, proving that this is a cost-effective solution.

Q: How aligned are the research priorities of academic institutions like Tec de Monterrey with the current and future needs of the automotive industry?

A: International companies are always looking for academic talent. Tec de Monterrey has modified its academic curricula. It is now called Tec21 and allows students to specialize in different technologies. Tec de Monterrey launched a concentration in the automotive sector to give students first-hand knowledge of the real challenges of the industry. Tec de Monterrey will launch the new Institute of Advanced Materials for Sustainable Manufacturing that, among other goals, aims to improve innovation jointly with the automotive industry.

The Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León (UANL) is also modifying its programs and the Universidad de Monterrey (UDEM) is working closely with the automotive industry. If Mexico does not prepare its human resources, companies will look elsewhere for talent. But our human resources are ready to add value, innovate and create the car of the future.

 

The Tecnológico de Monterrey, founded in 1943, is a private, nonprofit educational institution committed to the quality of higher education in Mexico.

Sofía Garduño Sofía Garduño Journalist & Industry Analyst