Virtual reality replaces car accidents in search of ideal EV material

TOKYO: In one of Nippon Steel’s research labs, technicians spend their days hitting countless electric and hybrid vehicles against walls and other obstacles.

“Look at what happens to the central pillar,” says a lab technician who analyzes the impact.

Despite endless testing, no twisted metal screams are heard, nor are violent reverberations heard. This is because all locks occur within a virtual environment.

As the electric vehicle industry expands, so does competition for finding lighter, more durable and resilient materials. As lighter materials, such as aluminum, become increasingly popular among automakers, steelmakers are increasingly under pressure. These virtual tests not only offer solutions to make the bodies of vehicles lighter without losing strength, but also save costs, as conventional crash tests can cost millions of dollars for a manufacturer of cars when the cost of creating a specially made car is included.

Nippon Steel’s Steel Research Laboratories uses the virtual space to analyze the effects of collisions by dividing the vehicle’s bodywork into chunks of just a few square millimeters. In total, a passenger vehicle can be broken down anywhere from a few million to 10 million items to observe.

Nippon Steel’s proprietary algorithm can measure the stress caused by the collision depending on the material and type of steel used. The program can also measure the force inflicted within the automatic component to judge the risk of fractures and stiffness.

The algorithm determines how long the material breaks to break or to what extent it can bend before it cracks. The app is based on hundreds of terabytes of steel data that Nippon Steel has been retrieving for many years.

The results of the virtual experiments are shown to car manufacturers who use 3D images so they can modify the designs. Since last year, technology has been used to visualize deformations. This innovation allows analysts to spot an area prone to breakage with a single glance.

Nippon Steel has been conducting virtual shock tests since the early 2000s. At first, the company did not achieve much accuracy due to the limited processing speeds of computers. At the time, virtual tests could only observe the effects of accidents on less than 10,000 items.

“The design, prototype, evaluation and redesign cycle has accelerated considerably,” said Toshiyuki Niwa, chief researcher at Steel Research Laboratories.

Car manufacturers are also involved in virtual crash tests. However, “I would say a steelmaker is better able to predict breakages in steel sheets due to proprietary material data on hand,” Niwa said.

Nippon Steel will use its data to respond to the increasingly competitive environment of the materials industry brought about by the EV era. As of this year, the company is actively pressuring carmakers around the world to participate in joint tests.

For steelmakers, steel sheets for the automotive industry are the main business. Nearly 20% of common steel was destined for vehicles last year, according to the Japanese Steel Federation, which makes it the main destination. In the specialized steel sector, this share jumps to about 40%.

At the same time, cars are evolving. Steel will only account for 46% of auto body material by 2040, according to the U.S. Nonprofit Center for Automobile Research, which will shrink by 65% ​​by 2020. Tesla has not only adopted aluminum, plastic and carbon fibers as alternatives to steel. .

To compensate for heavy EV batteries, electric vehicle manufacturers have to rely on lighter materials to extend the driving range.

Nippon Steel will use the data from the virtual shock tests to develop steel that can compete against aluminum. High tensile strength steel sheets are a possible candidate.

The product is almost three times stronger than the main products developed in the 1990s. But high-strength steel must be combined with a softer material, so its applications to vehicles are limited.

Using shock test data, Nippon Steel will analyze and modify the compounds used in steel to produce a product that is both lightweight and easy to process. The company wants to introduce design improvements to expand the adoption of high-strength steel.

“Together with carmakers, we will dispel concerns about ruptures, deformations and stiffness,” Niwa said.

In March, Nippon Steel said it will start a new hot-rolled steel production line in Japan during fiscal 2026, marking the first such launch in three decades.

“We will manufacture a steady supply of advanced ultra-strong steel,” said Eiji Hashimoto, president of Nippon Steel.

Nippon Steel reduces the number of Japanese blast furnaces from 10 to 14 due to declining domestic demand and price competition from China. The company also increased the prices of steel sheets recently sold to Toyota Motor. These developments underline the strategy based primarily on high value-added steel.

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