A consortium of engineers, manufacturers and researchers are joining forces to investigate how scandium, a rare earth mineral, can be used to help produce the next generation of lightweight electric buses

The Bus Optimisation Project is a partnership between Volgren, Australia’s largest bus body builder; Deakin University; scandium miner Clean Teq; and the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre. The partnership provides an opportunity to incorporate the latest thinking in metallurgical engineering with future bus design and advanced manufacturing techniques.

Peter Dale, CEO of Volgren, said as the global market for electric buses expands significantly, a lighter bus body will be a game changer, improving both range and capacity.

“Electric buses are without doubt the technology of the future, however, at the moment [they] are constrained by weight. The challenge with current battery electric vehicles is the low energy density of Energy Storage Systems (ESS) or batteries in comparison to diesel fuel. The result is a vehicle’s operating range that is intrinsically linked with vehicle mass.

“Reduced vehicle range can be managed through increased frequency of charging stations, but this is costly and complicates bus route management.

“A lighter bus allows for the inclusion of a larger battery, giving extended range. It also equates to a greater passenger carrying capacity.”

Dale said the Bus Optimisation Project was initiated after Volgren approached Deakin with the challenge of removing up to a tonne of weight from their popular low-floor city bus, Optimus. This, they knew, would be a difficult task considering Volgren already boast the lightest aluminium bus body of its type in Australia – and arguably the world.

“Deakin’s extensive capabilities in design, forming and metal alloy development have placed them at the forefront of metallurgical engineering.

“Their researchers have already had success incorporating scandium into the aeronautic sector and we believe that expertise can form the foundation of the next generation of Volgren aluminium bus designs.”

The partnership between Volgren and Deakin also includes a PhD scholarship, to ensure that the research remains grounded in industry application.

Dr Thomas Dorin, Associate Research Fellow at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials, which focuses on innovation and development in materials science and engineering, said Deakin’s researchers will spend significant time at Volgren’s manufacturing facility during the research phase of the project.

“Our researchers will explore the potential of varying Volgren’s alloys’ compositions by using scandium additions to design a new alloy with the same or higher strength combined with better extrudability.”

Dr Dorin said adding scandium in only fractions of a per cent to aluminium “promotes a smaller, even-sized grain structure during solidification” and significant strength benefits without the need for heat treatment. Besides increased strength and thus potential lightweighting of parts, it can also provide benefits without diminishing aluminium’s desirable attributes.

“The beauty of scandium is you do not need a lot in the material to make it a lot stronger.”

“And because we do not put a lot of scandium in the material you do not affect the other key properties too much.”

Dr Dorin said the initial laboratory scale extrusion trials will be conducted at Deakin. During the project, contact will be initiated with billet casters and commercial extruders in order to conduct industrial-scale trials.

Dale said the partnership with Deakin, continues Volgren’s strong relationship with academia; combining world class research with industry applications to stay at the forefront of bus development.