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What is Your Car Made Of?
In the days of the Model T (your great-great Grandfather’s car) human hands assembled cars on an assembly line piece by piece. Cars were made of steel and rubber. I was looking at my car and asking the question, what is my car made of? That search led to some amazing science connections.
Cars are made of more plastics today than in the days of the Model T. But, there are higher end cars than mine that have carbon fiber nanomaterials that are lightweight and stronger than any of the other materials available. There is one company developing a nanocellulose from banana peels, coconut shells and other plant fibers. These materials are being tested in dashboards as a replacement for plastics and metals. These nanocellulose materials are lighter, stronger and more heat resistant.
That is only part of the future. The National Geographic Channel has posted a video on how a car is assembled that is amazing. My car was probably welded, inspected and painted by robots. Only the trim pieces of my car probably had a human hand in the work. My car was bathed in an electrically charged bath of undercoat while the car was grounded to give it an opposite charge. Since opposites attract the coating adheres to every surface of the metal frame and body of my car. That is a significant improvement from a car I had in college that had more rust than metal by the end of even the first year.
I know my students are interested in everything about cars. With gas approaching four dollars a gallon fuel efficient cars are a frequent object of discussion. Making cars out of lighter and greener materials is part of the solution to having cars that get better gas mileage. Until we have better alternatives to the gasoline engines of today these small changes make a big difference.
The science connecting all of this could be in materials science. We will study metals when we learn about the periodic table. A great connection would be to find out why certain metals are used in cars. What properties of these metals make them more appropriate than say plastics? There is a great connection to properties both chemical and physical of each part of a car. What materials fill the seats in your car and what covers those seats? What properties of those materials led to the decision to use those materials?
Kids are creative and often think way out of the box. Here is the time when you could ask a question and see what kinds of creative thinking cars will bring out. I plan to ask my students to think of another material that would better serve as a bumper, seat filling, seat covering, and let them look over a car and suggest a greener alternative (based on key characteristics) for that part of the car. This par can be anything from the float in a carburetor to the glass in front of the headlights.
From nanoscience to properties of elements and compounds cars will have some interesting connections to my lessons next year. What could be easier than a quick field trip to the parking lot for some action research? For schools that still have an automotive tech program the teacher in that class could be an amazing resource. If not, the service folks at a local repair shop could come in and give a great in depth view of what materials make up our cars. I may have to clean up my car before it is ready for a field trip.