Material Gains
Today’s Best Technologies are the Roadmap to an Even Better Future
From autos to airplanes, change is in the air.
2020 has been an unusual and challenging year, although many of us can be thankful for the resilience of high-tech industries. Indeed, activity has surged in some sectors, and generally the outlook is relatively buoyant.

In my other role as president of the EIPC (European Institute for the PCB Community), I moderated the Institute’s Technical Snapshot webinar last November, at which Dr. Shiuh-Kao Chiang of Prismark described how various sectors have fared. While 5G infrastructure rollouts slowed and handset shipments fell about 10%, the PC market has been buoyed by the increase in work-from-home, and certain consumer markets such as wearables and smart appliances have also done well. Overall, he noted a surprising robustness across the electronics, semiconductor and substrate markets.

The automotive sector has been among the hardest hit, along with conventional commercial aerospace. Rebuilding after the damage to sales caused by the pandemic is just one of the challenges facing vehicle manufacturers right now. They are also contending with the push toward higher levels of driving automation, mandatory smart systems such as autonomous emergency braking, and real-time V2X capabilities, which are expensive to develop. At the same time, governments are signaling their intentions to accelerate electrification, which will require all manufacturers to move their entire product ranges to hybrid-electric or pure battery-EV platforms. The UK government has brought its intended start date forward to 2030. There is no doubt about the urgency, although I am sure at least hybrid-EVs will prove a steppingstone to the kinds of vehicles we use in the future.

Technical progress often happens this way. Consider where we are now with low-energy lighting, for example. Filament bulbs were the dominant technology lighting homes and had changed little in a hundred years. As we saw the imperative to reduce the energy consumed by lighting, we first adopted compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). Disliked for many reasons, they could be slow to reach full brightness. The lumen output degraded badly over time, and they presented a hazardous waste problem at end of life. Clearly, the world needed to step beyond these and realize a better solution.

Today’s solid-state domestic lighting is enabled by innovations in LED fabrication, of course, and by the enhanced thermal performance of insulated metal substrate (IMS) technology, developed within the PCB industry. We are now rewarded with even better lighting, not only more energy-efficient than those early CFLs but with improved reliability and more options than ever to create various lighting effects to suit our moods and activities.

Hybrid-EVs and battery-electric vehicles as we know them today have some notable drawbacks. Carrying both internal combustion and electric power systems makes today’s hybrids heavier and more expensive than is ideal. Also, problems are associated with sourcing rare materials such as lithium, which is an issue because Li-ion is currently the most suitable battery technology. Natural lithium deposits are dwindling, although mining remains more cost-effective than reclaiming the material from scrap batteries. Nevertheless, automotive electrification has helped create a sizeable market for Li-ion battery recycling that should reach $17 billion by 2027.

I’m optimistic the coming transition to hybrids and EVs will be just the beginning of our journey toward even better vehicles. They will be enabled by a variety of technologies, some of which are already known, while others remain undiscovered. Prospects are great for PCB stators, for example. These not only save the weight and losses of traditional laminated-iron cores but also allow direct integration of circuitry for important features such as sensing, condition monitoring, and IoT connectivity.

Insofar as energy for EVs is concerned, the hydrogen fuel cell could help relieve demand for lithium. Easy and fast to recharge, it could alleviate range anxiety, while at the same time permitting a significant reduction in battery size. On the other hand, this, too, could be a steppingstone toward another solution that will be more efficient and safer, easier to live with, and ready to offer more rewarding experiences than any we can imagine today.

In addition to road vehicles, shipping and aviation are elements of the transportation mix heavily dependent on combustion engines. The shipping industry is under pressure to move from traditional heavy fuel oil, with or without the use of exhaust scrubbing to remove sulfur-based compounds, in favor of cleaner fossil fuels or, ultimately, electrification. Leading logistics businesses and technology developers are teaming up to create solutions such as high-capacity marine batteries, high-power low-voltage diesel-electric hybrid drives, and hydrogen fuel-cell generators. Ferries, which cover short distances along fixed routes, could be the first step toward full electrification of long-distance shipping.

In the mission to decarbonize aviation, leading aircraft manufacturers are taking their first steps with hybrid and all-electric propulsion. Airbus has been flying experimental platforms of various configurations since 2010 and, in 2015, successfully crossed the English Channel between France and England, with the E-Fan 1.0 all-electric single-seater. It’s a tremendously significant route, recalling Louis Blériot’s historic channel crossing of 1909. He completed the 24-mile journey less than six years after the Wright brothers achieved the first-ever powered flight, managing to stay airborne for less than one thousand feet.

Those early pioneers could hardly have imagined what was to come. And neither, I am sure, can we.

Alun Morgan headshot
Alun Morgan
is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (ventec-group.com); alun.morgan@ventec-europe.com.