Westfield Sportscars has announced a ground-breaking collaboration with The Boeing Company and universities from the UK, USA and China on the use of microlattice in its future sports cars.
Microlattice is quite simply the lightest metal ever made, comprising essentially of 99.9% air. Its structure is made up of interconnected hollow tubes, each with a wall 1,000 times thinner than a human hair.
Its commercial development represents a notable achievement from the teams at Boeing and HRL Labs (the research facility established by Howard Hughes in the 1960s) as it opens-up a wealth of opportunities to significantly lighten non-structural parts of aircraft and high-performance vehicles. Importantly though, it’s also exceptionally strong. Scientists at HRL Labs claim that if wrapped around an egg, the impact-absorbing properties of microlattice could protect it from cracking when dropped from 25 stories.
The partnership between Westfield and Boeing has received support and funding from the Niche Vehicle Network and is being described as a “game changer” by the West Midlands sports car builder. As Julian Turner, Westfield’s CEO explains:
“SME and niche vehicle manufacturers, such as Westfield, are continually being challenged to compete and innovate, and yet the very nature of our business means that we only ever have small margins and volumes to work with. The support of the Niche Vehicle Network will now allow our designers to pursue a number of programmes aimed at using new materials and technologies that can keep British engineering at the forefront of the global sports car and race car markets.”
Initially, Westfield expect to explore the use of microlattice only within layered, non-structural parts, such as bodywork and panels. Key to this will be its very different destructive properties, compared to other similar materials such as carbon fibre.
“Due to the space constraints of our vehicles we have to innovate with materials and technologies that are often uncommon in every day cars. The opportunity to now work with Boeing means that we can consider the early adoption of a material that will not be readily available for some time to come. As such, we’re keen to investigate how we can use microlattice as a complementary material in ultra-lightweight vehicle build as opposed to, say, carbon (which is glass like in structure and can shatter).”
The strength and lightweight nature of the material can be expected to result in a combination of exceptional ‘off-the-line’ performance, together with vastly improved fuel efficiency. However, these same properties means that traditional chassis construction will remain unaffected. There’s a limit to how far weight reduction can safely be taken and both Westfield and Boeing are acutely aware of this.
There is another key potential outcome from the partnership. With an ever tightening regulatory environment pressuring the smaller specialist manufacturers, there’s a growing need to develop additional revenues by exploiting engineering capability. Businesses such as Westfield, Caterham, Lotus, Zenos and Ginetta can all benefit by not only exporting their cars but also their talent.
Despite the obvious differences in size, there’s much that our niche manufacturers can teach their mainstream counterparts and it’s to the credit of the Niche Vehicle Network that they are prepared to work hard to fight for the funding that converts projects like this from an idea on a drawing board to a commercial reality.