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Ultrathin designs reflect a safer future for motorists

by Will Venn

Drew Evans in the research lab.If you drive a new car in the next few years, when you check your side mirrors, take a close look; the reflection may appear courtesy of some cutting-edge technology developed by researchers at UniSA.

Dr Drew Evans is a research fellow whose expertise in ultrathin film technologies and work with the Thin Film Coatings Group at the Mawson Institute, has seen the development of plastic side mirrors designed to make cars both safer and more environmentally friendly.

“By developing a reflective thin film coating, which is less than the width of a human hair and which can be used on plastic, the application in cars has several advantages,” said Dr Evans.

“As soon as you replace glass with plastic you can effectively reduce by half the weight of the car mirror. This has a flow-on effect – the motor that adjusts the mirror can be made lighter as can the housing that encases the mirror.

“These weight savings add up to fuel savings which means the vehicle becomes more energy efficient.”

Environmental benefits are not the only advantage of using plastic mirrors.

“Plastic is inherently safe; the mirror is shatter proof. You can do things with plastic that you can’t do with glass. This gives car manufacturers freedom to redesign their cars around the fact they have this flexible material,” he said.

Dr Evans highlights the move in production from flat glass headlights to plastic headlights on cars as being instrumental for the development of more sleek, aerodynamically designed vehicles.

“This change was possible due to the moulding properties of plastic and the same analogy can now be applied to side mirrors,” he said.

By working in collaboration with industry partner SMR Automotive, the first commercial roll-out of side mirrors using the thin film coating technology is due in the US in the next few months.

“It will take about 18 months to two years to see its uptake in the consumer market place and we have confidence the product will be taken up,” said Dr Evans.

Earlier this year, Dr Evans was a finalist in the SA Science Excellence Awards and won a People’s Choice Award in recognition for his work in thin film coatings, particularly the development of the thin film mirror from design inception to product development and commercialisation.

“Our expertise is putting coatings on plastic; these don’t necessarily have to be reflective, another stream of our work is developing polymers that conduct electricity,” he said.

“When you put these onto flexible plastics they can be used in mobile phone technology, flat panel displays and solar cells.”

Dr Evans’ research, at the new $50 million Materials and Minerals Science Building and Plasso at Mawson Lakes campus, has also proved encouraging to undergraduate students.

“Being in an environment like this, where there are floor to ceiling glass laboratories, is fantastic,” he said.

“The philosophy of the M2 building is to create a portal from undergraduates to postgraduates; you can see the inspiration it gives to the next generation of scientists coming through, to see you do something.

“Science is not about being stuck in a dark lab somewhere, doing some experiment that doesn’t mean anything. You can see that we’re doing fundamental science that has real world applications.”