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How do vehicles continue to perform in all seven continents of the world in the varied environments and conditions that we subject them to?

Posted on 11 March 2016 by Daniel Callaghan Comments
Tags: Potting Compound, Encapsulation Resins, Conformal Coatings, Thermal Management, Thermal Interface Material

Estimated Read time: 860 words 4 mins

Electrolube manufactures specialist chemicals for the electronics industry with a massive amount of applications and the automotive industry is no exception. This clever chemistry works hard to protect the many electronic components and sensors in your average vehicle and we have recently launched a new brochure targeted specifically at automotive electronics. Taking thought-leadership to a new level, our Head of Conformal Coatings, Phil Kinner has also produced an in-depth technical article analyzing and exploring the range of electronics in modern day vehicles along with some innovative methods of protection.   

Everyone simply expects their car to perform without fault and would ideally like to jump in, fire up the engine and drive; not such an unreasonable request! A modern car has countless electronic systems, from the traditional starter motor that has been present in vehicles for almost 100 years, to the most up to date driving aids such as automated lane discipline sensors. There are so many intricate systems that can easily malfunction and the risk is heightened when taking the vehicle to an inhospitable environment.

Taking BBC TopGear as an example, they have taken everyday vehicles through the South American deserts, skidded across Arctic ice to the South Pole, crawled through Burma’s jungles, braved Australian dust and blazed across the African Savanna to name but a few. Just in those five instances, you have wide variances of temperature, moisture, mud, dust, insects… the list could go on.....Most importantly, the cars (and presenters) survive and just keep going! 

Arctic Trucks - Top Gear Magnetic North Pole Expedition

The Australian Special of Series 22, is perhaps the best example that I can recall and the TopGear presenters actually commented on this subject themselves. Having spent the two part episode driving high end sports cars across a wide expanse of Australia, through the heat and dust of the Northwest Territory and taking in ‘off road’ terrain, far from the everyday environment that they were designed for - the cars were really put through their paces. The presenters were amazed at the fact that none of the systems, mechanical or electronic had failed, even after such abuse.

So then, how do cars electronics maintain performance when subjected to harsh environments?

There are a number of contributing factors; the design of the car of course, being one. Protective casing, guards and bodywork shield sensitive components from the worst of the bombardment. However, this external protection alone is simply not enough. Even an enclosed unit will be subject to temperature changes, and no unit will be 100% sealed against moisture, dust or other contamination. Think about a visit to the beach; sand gets into EVERYTHING, regardless of how careful you are. In these sandy and dusty environments, the correct choice of contact lubricant, and its application can be vitally important. Even in the in-cabin electronics such as dash controls and the clockspring behind the steering wheel can be negatively affected.

For the PCB’s themselves, the clear solution is a Conformal Coating or Encapsulation Compound (resin).

The location of the electronics really will determine the level of protection required, and therefore the choice of coating or resin. For example, the electronics in the cabin will not require the same level of protection as say, the ABS sensors, which are much more exposed to the elements.

Resins typically offer a much higher degree of protection than coatings; they completely encapsulate the printed circuit board or electronics. Therefore resin is often used to protect electronics which are exposed to some of the harshest environments. This can range from the Battery connectors under the hood, to the fuel or oil sensors which spend much of their time immersed in chemical environments.

Resins utilise three main chemistries, Epoxy, Polyurethane and Silicone which offer varying sets of properties suited to different environments.

A Conformal Coating on the other hand is a thin layer applied over the circuit board or the electronics components which require protection. Conformal coatings also offer excellent protection against contaminants from the elements, moisture and salt mist exposure. They are usually used in the slightly less exposed electronics such as the main control unit for the vehicle, electric door mirrors or windscreen wiper motors, for example.

Conformal Coatings are available in a variety of chemistries, displaying a range of different properties which are suited to different levels of exposure.

Electrolube have also developed a hybrid product, launched at Productronica Munich 2015; the 2K range of Conformal Coatings.

This innovative new range of two component Conformal Coatings combine the chemistries of a traditional Conformal Coating and an Encapsulation Resin. This allows the user to apply a thicker protective layer than usual, using an existing in-line coating machine, while maintaining the same level of protection as a fully encapsulated item.

These new products have already seen a great deal of interest in the automotive market and hold great promise for future projects.

So, in a nutshell – that is why vehicles can – and do, perform across the globe, and provide us with entertainment such as the TopGear Specials.

If you would like to learn more about Resins, coatings or the 2K systems, have a browse about our website, there are technical articles in much more depth than this piece, videos and more.