‘Tennessee was the right place to be’

The beginning of the just-announced partnership between the University of Tennessee System, Volkswagen and Oak Ridge National Laboratory actually goes back several years.

The three organizations will partner on creating lightweight materials to build vehicles, as well as developing new electric vehicles. “One of our global challenges is sustainability,” Reimer said. “This is where materials research becomes very, very important.”

To that end, Volkswagen is always on the lookout for new technologies. The company is a member of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, also known as IACMI. The institute is managed by Collaborative Composite Solutions, which was established by the UT Research Foundation.

Through IACMI, Volkswagen saw the research and partnership that was happening at UT and ORNL. That made Knoxville – and Tennessee – an attractive choice to launch a new innovation center, said Nikolai Reimer, senior vice president and executive director of the Volkswagen Innovation and Engineering Center California.

“We’ve seen a huge openness to collaboration with industry partners,” Reimer said.

Research at the innovation hub will focus on developing electric cars, how to charge them wirelessly and lightweight material that can be used to make cars. The material that has been initially developed by ORNL is sustainable, and more lightweight than steel. It has been used to create a liftgate for the Volkswagen Atlas that is 35% lighter.

About the material being developed

The carbon fiber reinforced composite material that is being developed is also lower-cost and durable, and won’t rust like steel, said engineering professor Dayakar Penumadu. The material can also be reused or recycled at the end of a car’s life, which makes it a more sustainable option. ORNL has come up with a way to make lower-cost carbon fiber that is “attractive for automotives,” which drew the attention of Volkswagen. UT has expanded on that development.

“The key innovation for some of the new materials systems has come from Oak Ridge National Labs,” Penumadu said.

The innovation hub will give students the chance to work with Volkswagen and get direct experience in the automotive industry.

“A lot of these projects involve close integration of undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, faculty,” Penumadu said. “At multiple levels, we are really providing research and industry partners.”

Students tapped for innovation hub

Three doctoral students have been selected to begin working at the innovation hub: Andrew Foote, William Henken and Nathan Strain. Henken’s research will focus on lightweight materials used to build cars.

“I think I speak for all of us, we would love to see our work directly implemented in the Atlas vehicle, or a Volkswagen line,” Henken said.

“Hopefully, the things that we work on will be on the electric vehicle lines coming out of Chattanooga,” Foote said.

The research the students are working on, both wireless charging of electric vehicles and the composite materials for building cars, works together to make a more efficient car, Henken said.

“This is the first time this fellowship program has been implemented in the United States,” Henken said. “So we’re kind of setting the bar, and it means a lot. I feel like we have a lot of people watching, and we’re really setting the stage for a long-lasting partnership.”

‘Tennessee was the right place to be’

Oliver Schauerte, research head of materials and manufacturing processes with the Volkswagen Group, said Knoxville always stuck out as an American city to expand into. UT and ORNL, plus the proximity to Chattanooga, made it the perfect place for “a long-term collaboration,” he said. “We also discussed with other universities but at the end of the day, we thought Tennessee was the right place to be,” Schauerte said.

The long-term collaboration has room to grow, he said.

“What we are doing today is simply a starting point,” Schauerte said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Monica Kast

The East Tennessee Economic Development Agency markets and recruits business for the 15 counties in the greater Knoxville-Oak Ridge region of East Tennessee. Visit www.eteda.org

Published January 20, 2020