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Columbia Business Monthly

Clemson Researcher Claims Steel Tariffs Will Boost Composites Industry

Mar 21, 2018 09:55AM ● By Emily Stevenson

Clemson University researcher Srikanth Pilla believes that cost is the biggest barrier to using more composite materials in automotive manufacturing but that those materials could become more attractive if steel and aluminum prices rise in the wake of new tariffs. 

Composite materials are widely used in the making of airplanes and could have big advantages over metals in the making of cars. The materials can be made up to 10 times stronger and a fifth the weight of steel.

The trouble is that composite materials cost more than steel and aluminum.

Pilla, an assistant professor and Dean’s faculty fellow of automotive engineering, is working to close the gap in his lab at the Clemson University Center for Automotive Engineering in Greenville.

He is leading a team that is working with an original equipment manufacturer to create a driver’s side front-door assembly out of carbon-fiber-thermoplastic composites. The goal is to reduce the weight by 42.5 percent, helping automakers meet new fuel-efficiency standards going into effect in 2025.

Pilla and his team are doing their work as part of a $5.81-million grant they received in 2015 from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Pilla is also the director of the new Clemson Composites Center, which is part of a broader effort to collaborate with industry under the Center for Advanced Manufacturing. The Clemson Composites Center has been approved by Clemson’s Board of Trustees and will be outfitted with new equipment over the next few months.

Pilla is a leading expert in composite materials, said Nikolaos “Nick” Rigas, associate vice president for Strategic Initiatives and executive director of Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research.

“The changing landscape of aluminum and steel pricing will certainly have an impact on composite materials,” Rigas said. “Dr. Pilla’s knowledge in this field is extensive and broad. The amount of research funding he has received over the past few years is having a direct impact to the industry. His center for composites manufacturing research will have broad impacts in and out of the state of South Carolina.”

Here’s what Pilla had to say about the potential impact of the tariffs:

What could higher aluminum and steel prices mean for composite materials?

Definitely, it’s a good boost. The difference in the cost is reduced substantially. That means if the mindset changes for the OEMs, there might be more opportunities for more parts to be made from composites. From a technology standpoint, it’s definitely there. But cost-wise, there is always a pushback. But because of a reduction in the cost difference, that might open up. That means more industries might start looking at composites for multiple different applications, multiple different components. That might bring in more work for the researchers, especially with the composites center we have coming up. It might actually bring in more projects.

What are you doing in response to the announcement new tariffs are coming?

The tariffs were announced  just a few days ago. I plan to talk with the OEM I’m closely working with. Once I hear back from them, then I would like to think about what would be the next steps for my research enterprise.

What is the biggest hurdle to getting more composites into cars?

The biggest barrier is the cost. Incentives similar to the ones that lower the cost of biofuels and electric vehicles could make a difference. Just like they’re giving incentives for electric vehicles so that there is zero pollution, if they could also give incentives for lighter vehicles, composites would have a big push into the automotive sector. The lighter, the better your fuel efficiency is. You’ll have less pollution if you are using gasoline or diesel. If you are using electric vehicles, you can drive for longer distances. All this could mean a healthier environment.