Materials That Flex Like Nerves and Muscles

Mass production of mechatronic products is on the way. In addition to new fuel injection systems and valves for diesel engines, Fraunhofer researchers are working with firms in Saxony to develop economically operating, reliable processing plants with self-regulating systems.

Clouds of diesel fumes have never been a welcome sight on the roads. They mostly appear when the driver steps hard on the accelerator. In their search for a remedy, materials scientists, sensor experts and system integrators have been looking into alternatives to conventional engine technology. If the combustion process can be made even more complete, there will be less soot in the exhaust emissions and the engine’s efficiency will be improved. An essential component is an injection pump capable of finely dosing the input of fuel and adapting rapidly to changes in the engine’s regime and its fuel consumption.

The automobile industry has already completed the transition to electronically regulated fuel pumps and nozzles. Even more efficient solutions can be expected through the advent of mechatronics, or hybrid mechanical-electronic systems. In certain cases, this involves the use of actuators which also have the ability to operate as sensors. The best-known example are piezoelectric ceramics. Changes in pressure induce electric voltage in these materials, sometimes enough to even release a spark – as commonly observed in the application as cigarette lighters. Conversely, the application of an alternating current causes the material to vibrate – an effect employed to drive piezoelectric loudspeakers. When integrated in engines, intelligent actuators of this type receive their instructions from microprocessors which also process data originating from other sensors.

The first regional innovation cluster to be set up by the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, a group by the name of “Mechatronic Machine Systems” launched in mid-April by the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU in Chemnitz, has set its sights on endowing materials, components and industrial plant with smart features. Six local firms in Saxony have already signed up as collaborative partners, including Siemens VDO Automotive AG and joint subsidiary Volkswagen Mechatronic GmbH. “One of our objectives is to study the basic requirements for the manufacture of novel piezoelectric fuel injection systems,” reports Welf-Guntram Drossel, who heads the mechatronics department at the IWU. “The production plant that we are designing will operate to a similar degree of precision as that employed by the semiconductor industry.” The manufacturing tolerance for needle and other valves lies at just a few micrometers. It is this balancing act between small dimensions and high mechanical stability that the partners hope to accomplish through their collaborative effort.

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