Plastics quickly making their way into automotive engine bays

Over the past decade, plastics and forms of nylon are quickly replacing their ferrous counterparts as the material of choice under the hood of cars and trucks all over the world. How can this be? Conventional wisdom would tell you that the high stress environment of an internal combustion engine is no place for plastics – instead, tried and true steel and aluminum is the only place to go. In the 21st Century, that’s not necessarily the case.

Lift up the hood of any car or truck, from the most pedestrian economy car to an exotic supercar, now has a myriad of materials where you wouldn’t think they should be. If you lift the hood of your own car, there’s a good chance you’ll see plenty of black plastic where gleaming metal air cleaners, and painted engine blocks once ruled the landscape decades ago.

Everything from composite plastic to carbon fiber to nylons are used in modern engines thanks to their surprising properties including an overall lack of weight, resistance to heat, and overall strength. Thanks to these properties, plastics, nylons and composites are used for everything from engine covers to air intakes to lifter trays to engine valves and more.

But what led to these changes? In high performance applications, weight is the enemy of performance. But it’s not just exotic cars and sports cars that are using composite engine parts any more. In today’s automotive world, we’re in the midst of a perfect storm where auto manufacturers must adapt weight saving materials and techniques to more pedestrian cars and trucks as fuel economy standards climb ever higher.

Plus, with recent safety standards such as side curtain airbags and modern electronics weighing automobiles, coupled with the EPA’s ever-tightening standards, auto manufacturers have turned to plastics and composites to keep weight down. Thanks to the use of advanced materials such as carbon fiber and composite materials inside and outside of the car, auto manufacturers can actually meet these standards.

Beyond production uses, composite and plastic parts are now used in the testing phase for new cars. Now, car manufacturers and aftermarket companies are even making composite testing parts before they commit the man hours and put the money into machining a new part out of metal potentially saving millions of dollars at the OEM level.

While there isn’t an engine made completely out of plastics, yet, we are moving into an age where the average engine bay isn’t just filled with metals; it’s got plenty of composites in it as well.

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