Students quiz an expert on how chemistry contributes to developing greener and safer cars

This spring’s last Xperimania science chat on 23 March, 2009 taught students about the contributions of chemistry in the automotive industry. The chat expert, Ulrich Nies from BASF, was especially asked about the impact of petrochemical innovations on the environmental efficiency of cars.

Five schools from Greece, Poland, Romania and Slovenia participated in the Xperimania chat “How does the automotive industry rely on petrochemicals?”, held in German.

The students of the Romanian Liceul teoretic "Diaconovici-Tietz" wanted to know about the research being done by BASF to reduce CO2 emissions.

Ulrich Nies explained that the research focuses on reducing the weight of vehicles by replacing metal with new materials developed in petrochemistry. Lighter cars use less fuel and thus emit significantly less CO2 into the environment.

This means that some metal parts of the car body are replaced by plastics such as polyurethane, which make them lighter and even more stable. Extremely light Basotect foam is used for thermal insulation of engines, and plastic fillings are used in metal parts to make them both lighter and stronger.

Students also wondered about bio-alternatives to traditional fuels. The students from the Polish I Liceum Ogolnokształcace im. M. Kopernika were interested in the feasibility of bio-fuels and hydraulic cars.

Ulrich Nies stressed that current bio-fuels are profitable starting from an oil price of 47 dollars per barrel. He pointed out that the CO2 balance of eco-fuels is not always better than that of traditional fuels.

Before the breakthrough to cars with hydraulic technology, there are still both technical and logistical problems to solve, said the chat expert. Big investments are required to enable the smooth use of hydraulic cars.

In the case of electric cars, research focuses on expanding the range of the batteries used. At the moment the industry is working on a lithium-ion battery which would improve the range by 50%.

The students from the Gimnazija Poljane, Slovenia, wanted to know about the benefits of petrol in comparison with other fuels. Ulrich Nies explained that diesel motors are the most efficient and LPG (Liquefied petroleum gas) is more limited in usage. Each engine is optimized for a particular fuel, and they shouldn’t be mixed – if you don’t want to destroy your car.

Students from the Romanian Mihai Viteazul school asked the chat expert for his view of future technologies in the car industry. Ulrich Nies replied that no one in the automotive industry can say for sure what the future will bring. Classic combustion engine will still lead the industry in developed forms for some years. 

At the same time electric cars will become more and more popular, especially in urban environments. However, in the long run, hydraulic technologies are the most promising, said the chat expert.

Download the chat transcript here (pdf, in German).

Background article

Chat expert Ulrich Nies with Graeme Wallace and Franco Bisegna from Appe/Cefic.
Mihai Viteazul school, Romania. Teachers: Aurora Fagaras and Ana Ratiu.
Mihai Viteazul school, Romania. Teachers: Aurora Fagaras and Ana Ratiu
Gimnazija Poljane, Slovenia.
Teacher: Breda Policar
Gimnazija Poljane, Slovenia. Teacher: Breda Policar
Gimnazija Poljane, Slovenia. Teacher: Breda Policar
Liceul teoretic "Diaconovici-Tietz", Romania. Teacher: Mircea Iacob Meila
Liceul teoretic "Diaconovici-Tietz", Romania. Teacher: Mircea Iacob Meila
Liceul teoretic "Diaconovici-Tietz", Romania. Teacher: Mircea Iacob Meila