A new, greener alternative to engage airbag passive safety restraint systems in passenger vehicles was introduced at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show by ARC Automotive Inc. The patented EcoSafe Inflator technology employs a saltwater brine solution mixed with heated gas.
According to Ali El-Haj, President of the Knoxville, TN-based company, the new inflator is also a safer and cheaper alternative to traditional pyrotechnic inflators. EcoSafe uses a saltwater solution and a small, encapsulated pyrotechnic charge to deploy the airbag. Other pyrotechnic inflators use larger charges to generate hot gases, he explained, which must be cooled and filtered as they inflate the airbag.
“EcoSafe Inflator requires a smaller pyrotechnic charge to vaporize the brine or saltwater solution,” El-Haj said. “The mixture of vaporized liquid and combustible gases then inflates the airbag with a nontoxic, low-temperature, low-particulate mixture.”
The new inflator, which was developed in under three years, is basically a cross between a pyrotechnic inflator and a hybrid inflator, which uses stored high-pressure gas as well. “That was the challenge we gave the engineers—you’ve got to come up with something lower cost, but we want to be able to generate the same amount of pressure and achieve the same performance,” El-Haj explained to AEI. “So they developed a solution that is simple; it’s like brine that you have in pickle juice, and we use the same propellants that we have today and the same igniter.”
According to El-Haj, the new inflator uses about 50% less of the propellant and initiator than a current pyrotechnic inflator does to generate the same amount of energy. “If you’re using 50% less input, the output—the contaminants—is going to be at a minimum 50% less. And we don’t have to use the filters that they use today in the pyrotechnic to prevent all those particles from flying into the vehicle,” thus improving occupant safety.
Cost is lower compared to pyrotechnic inflators due to the use of saltwater, less pyrotechnic material, and no filters. Savings to airbag system manufacturers can be significant, El-Haj noted, not only because of lower part costs but also reduced logistics and handling costs.
The EcoSafe Inflator can be used in existing airbag configurations with no new module development required. Initial launch will be in side airbags because of the growth potential in that segment, said El-Haj, with other applications such as active knee bolsters to follow, “because the technology is the same.”
Several airbag module makers/integrators have tested the technology to positive results, he added. The technology could appear in production vehicles starting in the 2011 or 2012 model year.