Researchers at two Pittsburgh-based companies and a local university will obtain federal funding to work with the automotive industry in making vehicles lighter and more fuel-efficient.

The Department of Energy (DOE) will award funding to three automotive research projects led by the metals and materials manufacturer Alcoa and the coatings company PPG. A similar investment of $1.25 million was also awarded to the University of Pittsburgh, where researchers are working to improve the performance of electric car batteries.

Alcoa will receive $1.76 million to develop lighter car parts by combining traditionally used steel and aluminum with strong, yet lightweight carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastic composites. As a complement to their research, PPG’s Allison Park Coatings Innovation Center will receive $2.21 million to develop adhesives and coatings that could improve the corrosion resistance of Alcoa’s new vehicle parts.

“The automotive industry is focusing on using lightweight materials to improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles,” says Jackie Kulfan, PPG proposal manager of corporate science and technology. “However, joining dissimilar materials often leads to increased corrosion. To help automakers successfully implement lighter-weight designs, PPG will apply our expertise in corrosion protection to develop new coatings and adhesives that will slow corrosion development where two different materials are joined.”

She adds that the project will focus on the joint around the edge of closure panels, such as doors, hoods, trunks and anywhere else that a part opens and closes.

A Monroeville-based PPG research center will also receive $914,771 to see if a silica material called AGILON used in tire treads could further boost vehicle efficiency if added to other critical tire components, such as the sidewall.

“Less fuel-efficiency research has been conducted on non-tread components of the tire, but the research to date indicates that significant energy improvements are possible,” says Kulfan. “Our AGILON silica technology offers unique features that should enable tire manufacturers to use it in other tire components to help increase fuel efficiency even more.”

The funding is part of a nationwide, $137 million effort by the DOE to lower carbon emissions by developing and deploying car and truck fleets that meet higher mileage regulations. The new standards affect both passenger car and commercial fleets, with cars required to reach at least 50 miles per gallon by 2025. It also involves a program created to develop more fuel-efficient Class 8 trucks, which haul over 80 percent of goods in the U.S. They also burn 28 billion gallons of fuel per year, which accounts for 20 percent of the U.S. transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions and fuel use. 

If successful, the investment is expected to significantly lower CO2 emissions that are believed to cause climate change, as well as lower overall fuel costs for the country’s car owners and businesses.