Advances in material science aside, not much has changed with vehicle braking systems over the past 200 years. While today’s antilock, six-piston caliper, carbon-ceramic rotor braking systems may not resemble the leather-pad-against-wooden-wheel systems found on early coaches, friction is still the deciding factor behind stopping.
Friction creates heat, and heat can have a negative effect on component life and vehicle performance. Modern racing brake systems use ducted air to cool the brake system components, which themselves are designed to take a significant amount of heat. Block a brake vent duct, and bad things can potentially happen.
Modern brake system components wear, too, and the harder they’re pushed, the quicker they wear. In endurance racing, it’s not uncommon for teams to replace both brake pads and rotors during a 24 hour event. What if a system could be designed that would brake the car via electromagnetic force, instead of friction?
Such systems are no longer entirely the stuff of science fiction, thanks to ongoing research at the University of Minnesota and the University of North Texas. As Physorg reports, researchers have developed a supercapacitor that is small in scale, solid state and doesn’t rely on hazardous liquid electrolytes. In other words, they’re perfect for automotive applications.
While both capacitors and batteries can be charged and discharged, capacitors do so much quicker than batteries. Batteries rely on a chemical process to store energy, while capacitors store it in an electric field. The drawback to current capacitors is that they discharge stored energy all at once, instead of in a linear fashion like batteries.
Don’t expect the 2014 Corvette to come with supercapacitor brakes, since the concept is still in its infancy. As Antony Ingram explains on Green Car Reports, these supercapacitors will likely first be used to supplement batteries in hybrid vehicles, often charged via regenerative braking. When the technology is mature, it could then potentially be adapted for other applications, like electromagnetic braking systems.
There are other performance benefits, too. Mainstream automobiles typically use cast iron brake rotors, and cast iron is very heavy. Worse, it’s what engineers call “unsprung weight,” and reducing this improves both performance and ride quality. If a braking system can be designed that reduces both heat build-up and unsprung mass, we’re guessing it would be adopted quickly.