Safety First: Materials That Make Cars and Planes Safer


When boarding an airplane or climbing into a car, we take for granted that these transportation marvels will get us to our destinations safely. But behind the scenes, an incredible amount of research goes into developing advanced materials specifically engineered to protect passengers and drivers in the event of an accident or impact.

Stronger, Lighter Vehicle Bodies

For decades, automakers and aerospace companies relied primarily on steel alloys and aluminum to construct vehicle bodies able to withstand impact forces. Nonetheless, these metals add substantial weight, which reduces fuel economy and performance. Enter advanced polymer matrix composites reinforced with super-strong yet lightweight fibers like carbon, aramid, or fiberglass prepreg. According to the experts at Axiom Materials, these composites can be several times stronger than steel at just a fraction of the weight.

Deflecting Impacts with Aerospace Honeycomb

In a collision, the key to surviving severe impact forces is strategically managing how that energy dissipates through the vehicle body. A remarkably effective solution pioneered by the aerospace industry involves sandwich-structured composites containing a honeycomb core. The honeycomb’s hollow cells get progressively crushed and deformed upon impact, absorbing massive amounts of kinetic energy that could otherwise get catastrophically transferred to passengers. This same energy-absorbing honeycomb concept is found in NASCAR race cars and even some industrial packaging designed to protect cargo during drops and crashes.

Spongy Foam Barriers for Gradual Deceleration

Foams are another type of energy-absorbing material playing a vital safety role in vehicles and aircraft. From reinforced polymer foams lining seat cushions to durable metallic foams in anti-intrusion beams, these materials excel at progressively crushing in a controlled manner to decelerate occupants over longer distances and timescales. Some foam formulations even re-expand after deforming to provide a secondary impact buffer.

Harnessing the Power of Shapes

While composites and foams protect passengers through gradual deformation, other vehicle safety designs utilize rigid cell structures to redirect or deflect collision forces away from occupants. Reinforcement rings and car bumper beams fabricated from fiber-reinforced composites or ceramic particle foams employ optimized geometrical shapes to strategically transfer and distribute impact energy along defined paths. This force deflecting approach leaves sufficient survival space around passengers while preventing intrusion into the vehicle cabin.

Windows That Hold Their Ground

For aircraft and automobiles alike, preserving the integrity and shatter-resistance of windows/windshields during accidents is crucial for maintaining a protective shell around passengers. Safety glass laminates made by layering tough transparent polymer sheets or thin plastic films between layers of conventional glass prevent shattering while remaining optically clear.

Fire Safety and Heat Shielding

In the aftermath of a severe accident, it is also vital to protect passengers from exposure to fire, noxious fumes, or excessive heat. Thermal barriers made from ceramic matrix composites reinforced with silicon carbide fibers can keep occupants insulated even when surrounding areas exceed 1,832°F. For aerospace applications, protective outer layers fabricated from rigidized carbon-carbon composites effectively shield against the blowtorch-like conditions of atmospheric re-entry.

Deflecting Electromagnetic Threats

Lastly, an often-overlooked safety priority involves shielding vehicle occupants from electromagnetic threats like lightning strikes or electromagnetic pulses (EMPs), which could potentially disrupt critical control systems. Sandwich composites integrating thin metal meshes or sheets create a Faraday cage enclosure around airframes and automotive frames to deflect arcing electricity while remaining lightweight.


Thanks to innovative applications of advanced materials in everything from reinforced body structures to thermal shielding and electromagnetic hardening, today’s vehicles achieve unprecedented levels of occupant protection without compromising other key attributes like fuel efficiency, range, or aerodynamics. As material technologies continue evolving alongside automotive/aerospace design, the roads and skies will only grow safer for travelers worldwide.

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