Lighter vehicles, safer components, greener processes: how plasma technology supports the mobility concepts of the future

We are on the threshold of a new energy age driven by climate change, increasingly scarce resources and a new environmental awareness. Researchers and developers working on the mobility concepts of the future are working hard to make existing means of transportation more environmentally friendly and to create innovative new solutions. Plasma technology has a key role to play, as Stephan Gruber, General Manager at the Plasmatreat subsidiary, Plasmatreat France, explains.

Lighter vehicles, safer components, greener processes: how plasma technology supports the mobility concepts of the future

5 minutes, 30 secondes

JEC Composites: How can plasma technology contribute to new, sustainable mobility concepts?

Plasma applications broaden the range of materials that can be used in vehicle or aircraft construction: they enable the use of new and innovative materials such as plastics, composites and hybrid materials instead of metals.

This opens up new possibilities for designers in the development of more climate-friendly means of transportation, including lightweight construction. In addition, the use of plasma technology enables more energy efficient and environmentally friendly production processes. The excellent reproducibility of plasma applications and seamless process control ensure safety and quality.

JEC Composites: How does plasma technology work and what can it do?

Plasma pretreatment is the key technology for ultra-fine cleaning, surface activation and plasma coating of almost all materials. It is based on a simple physical principle: the application of energy changes the state of matter. When energy is applied to a gas, it is ionised and enters the high-energy plasma state as the fourth state of matter. When plasma, with its high energy level, comes into contact with materials, the surface properties change, e.g. from hydrophobic to hydrophilic. In this way, plasma can be used to selectively modify the surface of substrates to improve adhesion in industrial applications and even to bond materials that were originally incompatible (see picture opposite). As a result, users benefit from a wider range of materials and improved bond strength after plasma treatment, even under extreme conditions.

Plasmatreat has developed several processes that can be used for industrial processes: in the Plasmatreat Openair-Plasma plasma treatment, oxygen and nitrogen containing groups are introduced into the mostly non-polar surfaces to increase the surface energy. The activation optimises the wettability of the substrate,

which also significantly increases the adhesion capacity and thus the long-term stability of adhesives, paints and coatings. These characteristics can be used for

innovative developments in the field of mobility, as can our PlasmaPlus technology, which uses nanocoatings to create functionalised surfaces. For example, when using the PlasmaPlus technology AntiCorr, a gaseous precursor is injected into the plasma beam. The substrate is coated with an ultra-thin, transparent plasma polymer protective layer. This acts as an adhesion promoter and/or a corrosion barrier.

JEC Composites: How are these characteristics being applied to new developments in our mobility?

In both the automotive and aerospace industries, lightweight construction plays an important role in the development of more climate-friendly concepts: reducing the overall weight of vehicles and aircraft saves fuel, reduces emissions and gives electric cars a longer range, making them more attractive (see picture below). Lightweighting is achieved, for example through composites, which are lighter and more durable than any metal solution. When polymers replace metals, the challenge is to achieve mechanical strength. Bonding is one of the key technologies. However, the complex material blends are often difficult to bond due to their generally low polarity. Plasma surface treatment significantly improves adhesion – and therefore safety. It also makes some material combinations possible for the first time.

In industry lightweight, construction is important when it comes to more climate-friendly production concepts: Openair-Plasma from Plasmatreat plays an important role in these processes, because Openair-Plasma systems only require compressed air (photo: Plasmatreat GmbH ©)

Plasma allows the automotive and aerospace industries to use alternative plastic components. Aircraft manufacturers, for example, are turning to ever-lighter composite materials made from layers of fibreglass-reinforced plastic and aluminium bonded together with high-performance adhesives. Bonding also offers an alternative to other joining techniques such as rivets or screws. These add weight to a component and are susceptible to corrosion. Bonding also distributes forces over a larger area than rivets or bolts. This means that greater forces can be applied without damaging the component. As a result, the material can be made thinner overall. In addition, the use of plasma technology allows our users to achieve more environmentally friendly production processes. With our PT-Bond coating, even plastics that were previously difficult to bond can be directly and permanently bonded with assembly or structural adhesives. This plasma coating replaces the use of primers, which are harmful to the environment and human health, and eliminates VOC emissions (see picture below).

A composite panel is pretreated with Openair-Plasma
A composite panel is pretreated with Openair-Plasma in a Plasma Treatment Unit (PTU) prior to bonding. Using a special PlasmaPlus coating PT-Bond, for example, even plastics that were previously difficult to bond can be directly and permanently bonded with assembly or structural adhesives (photo: Plasmatreat GmbH ©)

JEC Composites: Reliable, reproducible processes are essential – not only, but especially – in vehicle and aircraft construction. What process control options does Plasmatreat offer?

We have developed several process control systems to always ensure and verify process safety. Our Plasma Control Unit (PCU), for example, offers a wide range of control, regulation and monitoring functions. The various monitoring modules included in the PCU are, for example, the Plasma Power Module (PPM), which records power and voltage values directly at the jet head. The Light Control Module (LCM) provides ongoing documentation of the plasma generation. In addition, the Flow Control Module (FCM) continuously adapts the flowrate of the process gas to the circumstances. Functions like the Pressure Control Module (PCM) for testing jet back air pressure and the Rotation Control Module (RCM) for monitoring jet head rotation provide insight into the state of the jet head and the state of the motors, bearings, etc. when applicable. This means that data for predictive maintenance as well as production data are recorded continuously and support a smooth production process. Plasmatreat can guarantee that every component in a process is treated with the same plasma intensity and that the same quality is achieved in all manufacturing lines. The process control and traceability options offered by Plasmatreat are unique in the industry. This is extremely important in many industries, but especially in mobility concepts. After all, whether it is a lightweight component made of a new material or a sensor, a failure can have serious consequences.

JEC Composites: Looking to the future, what role will plasma applications play in new and innovative forms of transportation?

The future of mobility is climate-neutral and digital. We see ourselves as a driver of these sustainable developments. Plasma treatment is simple, very successful and easy to control. Plasma technology ensures that components function perfectly, even under demanding conditions such as different environmental influences, extreme temperatures or other difficult conditions. Our solutions are helping to replace more and more conventional and polluting pretreatment processes in industry with plasma technology to make processes more efficient and environmentally friendly. When it comes to sustainable mobility alternatives, many innovative concepts are already close to realisation – from drones, e.g. for parcel delivery in urban areas, to autonomous vehicles and air cabs. Plasmatreat GmbH is involved in numerous research projects that exploit the benefits of our reliable and environmentally friendly technology, including in areas such as autonomous driving or regional air mobility (air cabs) – the potential of plasma technology is far from exhausted.

Cover photo: By using Openair-Plasma from Plasmatreat, surface characteristics can be modified in an environmentally friendly and clean way: the wettability of the surface is increased and perfectly prepared for further processes such as bonding, painting or coating (photo: Plasmatreat GmbH ©).

More information www.plasmatreat.fr