Edited by Elizabeth Engler Modic

With regulators pushing for lower emissions globally, automakers are investing in hybrid-electric and battery electric vehicles. However, those models are less than 1% of industry sales, and gasoline-powered cars and trucks will remain dominant for many years. Balancing investments in future vehicle technologies with demands for improving existing systems is difficult. Freudenberg Sealing Technologies (FST) CEO Claus Möhlenkamp discusses how to handle changing powertrain technologies.

Today’s Motor Vehicles (TMV): How quickly is the industry going electric?

Claus Möhlenkamp (CM): The auto industry is facing a fundamental technological shift from the internal combustion engine to emission-free mobility. Exact predictions about production figures are always fraught with uncertainties, but we are assuming electric vehicles will reach significant volumes after 2025. At the same time, the number of combustion engines will increase as the global automotive market grows. Between 2025 and 2035, according to our estimates, the production of classic combustion engines will reach its peak and then gradually subside.

There are several factors that suggest that the electric powertrain will prevail long-term. For example, there is the societal shift calling for emission-free driving in city centers. Automakers are investing substantial resources in the development of electric vehicles and powertrains. As a result, battery technology is continuing to develop rapidly. The familiar hurdles facing battery-powered electric vehicles – energy density, range, charging speeds, costs that are still too high – can be overcome with systematic research and development (R&D).

TMV: Does that mean you are focusing FST’s R&D resources to electric powertrains?

CM: The trick is to do both – on one hand, continue to develop the classic business and make combustion engines more efficient. On the other hand, make sufficient resources available to develop components for new powertrains.

Freudenberg Sealing Technologies CEO Claus Möhlenkamp

We cannot completely lose sight of conventional powertrains. They will still be with us for some time, new ideas are needed for them as well. Our low-emission sealing solutions (LESS) portfolio will continue to play a major role in this area. Political pressure to reduce emissions is still a reality. We are helping customers reach their emissions goals. We want to defend our market share with innovative products in conventional powertrain technology and expand it wherever possible.

Incidentally, greater efficiency through low-friction, lightweight components is as important to an electric vehicle as it is to a car with a combustion engine.

TMV: How do you balance those development needs?

CM: At our company, electric mobility is an issue for the top leadership. It is imperative to seize the opportunities being offered. FST has benefited from internal combustion engines having to function more efficiently. Now we have to position ourselves for the new business, which is why we recently formed a special department for application development and sales, dealing exclusively with electric mobility.

TMV: What are some early applications you’ve identified?

CM: On the product level, for example, we are putting emphasis on thermal management and two-component housings for sensors and other electronic components. Another promising area is the lightweight construction of electrically powered vehicles with electric-, heat-insulating, or alternatively conductive plastics for electric motors. Batteries with high power density have a corresponding need for cooling that requires flat seals or plugs and seals.

Mechanical seals are needed for electric motors, and rotating shaft seals (Simmerrings) remain indispensable for electrically driven vehicle transmissions. Finally, the housings for sophisticated control electronics must be sealed.

TMV: Electric motors have fewer moving parts than combustion engines. Do they need fewer seals?

CM: In the next decade, we will see many plug-in hybrids that have an electric powertrain as well as a combustion engine, boosting the number of the seals in the vehicle. We have already developed solutions for the electric side, such as frame seals for batteries, but in the transition to purely electric, battery-powered powertrains, our supplier share will decline if we do not seize the opportunities emerging from electric mobility.

TMV: What are some of the longer-term opportunities?

CM: The trend to the electric powertrain offers us new opportunities almost daily. For example, we are deeply involved with thermal management. Keeping the battery within an optimal temperature range becomes more important as output density and charging speeds increase.

But we are thinking even further ahead. Our materials expertise in polymers is an excellent starting point for identifying solutions to emerging problems. Thermally conductive plastics, for example, are making lightweight construction possible.

TMV: With battery power density increasing, how is FST working to manage heat buildup?

CM: It has always been important for us to jointly develop ideas with the customer. We are seeing a great deal of encouragement to develop more in the direction of thermal management. That will take staying power, but we have demonstrated it in the past; it took more than 10 years to go from the first idea for a gas-lubricated crankshaft seal to the regular production launch of Levitex.

TMV: So long term, FST will have to become less of a seal maker and more of a materials/solutions provider?

CM: Our seal know-how is and will continue to be the core of our business. But we have been expanding our portfolio for a long time. For example, with the acquisition of the Schneegans Group, we have created the precondition for offering lightweight plastic components with an integrated seal. And we are definitely open to moving from being a component manufacturer toward modules or even systems. In the process, it is important that we maintain our high level of added value; it is now more than 70% and should not fall to less than 50%.

TMV: Will batteries dominate electric drive, or do you see opportunities in hydrogen fuel cells as well?

CM: If you take a very long-term perspective – roughly looking ahead to the year 2050 – then you presumably have to realize that the internal combustion engine will have run its course for mobile applications. The efficiency of its energy chain is too low for those uses.

On the other hand, the battery-powered electric vehicle has very good energy conversion efficiency and can be operated climate-neutrally with renewable energy.

When it comes to CO2-neutral long-haul mobility, however, the fuel cell is likely the only option. The hydrogen tank for a fuel cell can be filled even in extreme temperatures – battery charging, by contrast, is impossible in freezing Siberian temperatures.

In our opinion, the fuel cell has some justification in the powertrain mix of the future.

TMV: Fuel cells require storage tanks and fuel systems. Does that create sealing opportunities?

CM: Sealing serves an extremely important, safety-relevant function in hydrogen fuel cells. We began the development of fuel-cell components 15 years ago. In the U.S., we have had the series production of seals used in materials-handling equipment underway since last year with considerable volumes. But it will probably be a while before we see high-volume production.

TMV: FST is also an industrial supplier. Are there ways to leverage your industrial expertise into the developing electric mobility market?

CM: We think our way into applications is by looking beyond the seal as structural component. In our production operations, we have focus factories that concentrate on automotive components in large volumes or our highly specialized industrial business.

The segments benefit from one another when it comes to materials that are exposed to very low and very high temperatures. The same thing applies to resistance to chemically aggressive media – our automotive division takes advantage of the knowledge that we have acquired in the process industry.

We can do fine with small volumes in electric mobility because we have become used to working with electric motors and equipment in our industrial business.

TMV: As mentioned, electric vehicles will need fewer seals. Is that a threat to FST’s business model?

CM: During the past 167 years, Freudenberg Group has adapted successfully to changed markets again and again. We have always found new solutions and we have the requisite financial power to finance developments over the long term. So, we’re not too worried about the change, which isn’t coming overnight anyway. The crucial factor is that we tackle the new electric mobility issue with enthusiasm – and we’re doing that.

Freudenberg Sealing Technologies