VOLGREN PIONEERING RARE EARTH-MINERAL USE FOR LIGHTER ELECTRIC BUS BODIES

By: Fabian Cotter


BREAKING: AUSTRALIAN BUS MANUFACTURER VOLGREN has partnered up with key industry players to investigate how Rare Earth Element (REE) Scandium could help lighten electric bus bodies (or a bus body) – crucial for larger battery fitment, extended range and increased carrying capacity, the company announced today.

VOLGREN PIONEERING RARE EARTH-MINERAL USE FOR LIGHTER ELECTRIC BUS BODIES
If electric buses are the future, weight is a constraint to consider. Hence Volgren's exploration of Scandium for body building.

The consortium of engineers, manufacturers and researchers - which is in its early days - involves Volgren – Australia’s largest bus body builder; Deakin University, via a PhD Scholarship (Volgren's third); Victoria-based Scandium miner Clean Teq; and Sydney-based Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC).

The alliance aims to find out how Scandium, a rare earth mineral, can be used to help produce the next generation of lightweight electric buses.

With many public transport pundits worldwide stating electric buses are the future, at the moment they're constrained by weight, many experts agree. A lighter bus also equates to a greater passenger carrying capacity, says Volgren.

The Bus Optimisation Project is said to provide, "an opportunity to incorporate the latest thinking in metallurgical engineering with future bus design and advanced manufacturing techniques." 

Peter Dale, CEO of Volgren, said as the global market for electric buses expands significantly, a lighter bus body will be a game changer, improving both range and capacity.

"Electric buses are without doubt the technology of the future; however, at the moment [they] are constrained by weight. The challenge with current battery electric vehicles is the low-energy density of Energy Storage Systems (ESS), or batteries in comparison to diesel fuel. The result is a vehicle’s operating range that is intrinsically linked with vehicle mass.

"Reduced vehicle range can be managed through increased frequency of charging stations, but this is costly and complicates bus route management.

"A lighter bus allows for the inclusion of a larger battery, giving extended range. It also equates to a greater passenger carrying capacity."

 Related article: Tokyo Metropolitan Government chooses Volgren
Related article: Tokyo Metropolitan Government chooses Volgren

Dale said the Bus Optimisation Project was initiated after Volgren approached Deakin with the challenge of removing up to a tonne of weight from their popular low-floor city bus, Optimus. This, they knew, would be a difficult task considering Volgren already boasts the lightest aluminium bus body of its type in Australia – and arguably the world, it’s stated.

"Deakin’s extensive capabilities in design, forming and metal alloy development have placed them at the forefront of metallurgical engineering.

"Their researchers have already had success incorporating Scandium into the aeronautic sector and we believe that expertise can form the foundation of the next generation of Volgren aluminium bus designs," Dale added.

The partnership between Volgren and Deakin also includes a PhD scholarship, to ensure that the research remains grounded in industry application.

Dr Thomas Dorin, Associate Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials, which focuses on innovation and development in materials science and engineering, said Deakin’s researchers will spend significant time at Volgren’s manufacturing facility during the research phase of the project.

"Our researchers will explore the potential of varying Volgren’s alloys’ compositions by using Scandium additions to design a new alloy with the same or higher strength combined with better ‘extrudability’."

Dr Dorin said adding Scandium in only fractions of a per cent to aluminium, "promotes a smaller, even-sized grain structure during solidification," and significant strength benefits without the need for heat treatment. Besides increased strength and thus potential ‘lightweighting’ of parts, it can also provide benefits without diminishing aluminium’s desirable attributes.

"The beauty of Scandium is you do not need a lot in the material to make it a lot stronger."

"And because we do not put a lot of Scandium in the material you do not affect the other key properties too much."

Dr Dorin said the initial laboratory scale extrusion trials will be conducted at Deakin. During the project, contact will be initiated with billet casters and commercial extruders in order to conduct industrial-scale trials.

Dale said the partnership with Deakin continues Volgren’s strong relationship with academia, combining world-class research with industry applications to stay at the forefront of bus development.

WHAT IS AN REE?

As explained on the Federal Government site Geoscience Australia, "the rare-earth-element (REEs) are a group of 17 metals which comprise the lanthanide series of elements: lanthanum (La), cerium (Ce), praseodymium (Pr), neodymium (Nd), promethium (Pm), samarium (Sm), europium (Eu), gadolinium (Gd), terbium (Tb), dysprosium (Dy), holmium (Ho), erbium (Er), thulium (Tm), ytterbium (Yb) and lutetium (Lu), in addition to scandium (Sc) and yttrium (Y), which show similar physical and chemical properties to the lanthanides. The REEs have unique catalytic, metallurgical, nuclear, electrical, magnetic and luminescent properties. Their strategic importance is indicated by their use in emerging and diverse technologies that are becoming increasingly more significant in today's society. Applications range from routine (e.g., lighter flints, glass polishing mediums, car alternators) to high-technology (lasers, magnets, batteries, fibre-optic telecommunication cables) and those with futuristic purposes (high-temperature superconductivity, safe storage and transport of hydrogen for a post-hydrocarbon economy, environmental global warming and energy efficiency issues). Over the past two decades, the global demand for REEs has increased significantly in line with their expansion into high-end technology, environment and economic areas (Hoatson et al 2011)."

"During the past few years, scandium bearing lateritic nickel-cobalt (Ni-Co) deposits have attracted increasing attention in response to anticipated rise in demand for scandium. Zirconia stabilised with scandium rather than Y as an electrolyte for Solid Oxide Fuel Cells (SOFCs) reduces the operating temperature of the fuel cell significantly, resulting in a much longer life. SOFCs are expected to play a significant role in the developing battery powered electric transportation industry (cars, trucks, trains, etc), as well as in stationary applications such as electricity generation in the home or as a substitute for coal fired power plants."

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