With plastic, automakers could bend and shape a muffler around the existing real estate under the vehicle, incorporating it in a wheel well, a heat shield or even a bumper beam. Composites could reconfigure the image of a muffler just as plastic has altered the shape of fuel tanks.
"Why is the muffler cylindrical? Because that's the easiest way to bend the metal," McKechnie said. "Their entire system is based on bashing metal."
Even in the developmental stage, the company is pointing to a composite piece that could cut the weight of a 20-pound metal part in half.
Within the composite muffler concept, Owens Corning would combine a plastic-composite outer package with sound-absorption material already used in some steel mufflers.
The system can be engineered so that it readily transfers and retains heat to ensure catalytic converters reach operating temperature quickly, a key element in reducing vehicle emissions.
Composite components will not make an immediate move into the marketplace, Hopkins said. Even if automakers buy into the proposal, they must make their way to designers laying out future cars. But there is interest.
The biggest hurdle for now is convincing the auto industry that it can reconsider the performance standards written with metal in mind, he said.
Even the shape of today's system is designed around the benefits and limitations of steel.