In Search of a Four-Wheel Dreamliner

Last week, in support of the President’s Materials Genome Initiative, the White House announced a new $14.2 million Department of Energy program to improve vehicle fuel efficiency by incorporating advanced materials to make cars lighter while maintaining safety and performance, a process known as “lightweighting”. Using lighter materials can dramatically reduce a vehicle’s fuel consumption. For example, a 30 percent reduction in weight can improve fuel economy by 18 - 24 percent. Investing in technologies to enhance fuel efficiency is a key part of the Obama Administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy, which aims to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by keeping America on the leading edge of modern energy technologies.

This same lightweighting strategy is part of what lead to the success of Boeing’s recently-unveiled Dreamliner, which President Obama highlighted during his recent visit to Boeing in Everett, Washington. The Dreamliner is unlike any other airplane in virtually every aspect, from the material of the fuselage to windows that dim with the touch of a finger. The cabin is also more spacious and comfortable. In spite of this, the Dreamliner uses 20 percent less fuel and produces 20 percent fewer emissions. What makes many of these advances possible is the incorporation of carbon fiber, a lightweight but strong composite material. The Dreamliner is 50 percent carbon fiber by mass.

When President Obama announced the Materials Genome Initiative last summer, this style of material advance is precisely what he had in mind for advancing a broad range of American industries. By supporting the development of efficient, high-tech vehicles, this DOE funding program and others like it within the MGI will help keep America competitive in both research and manufacturing while also taking important steps toward American energy independence. 

Cyrus Wadia is Assistant Director for Clean Energy and Materials R&D at OSTP

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