LONDON - Imperial College in London is engaged in a research project exploring the development of car body panels that can also serve as a rechargeable battery for plug-in hybrids and electric cars. Volvo Cars is one of the participants in the project, the automaker said.

The three-year project, launched earlier this year, is still in its first stage. This initial phase has two major goals: developing a composite material that can store more energy, and finding ways to produce this material on an industrial scale.

Only in the final project stage will the battery be fitted to a car.

Researchers hope to develop material that's a composite blend of carbon fibers and polymer resin. It needs to store and charge more energy quicker than conventional batteries. At the same time, this material needs to cut down the car's weight by as much as 15 percent compared to the weight of a car with steel body panels.

"Our role is to contribute expertise on how this technology can be integrated in the future and to input ideas about the advantages and disadvantages in terms of cost and user-friendliness," said Per-Ivar Sellergren, development engineer at the Volvo Cars Materials Center.

Initially, the car's spare wheel recess will be converted into a composite battery. "This is a relatively large structure that is easy to replace," Sellergren explained. "Not sufficiently large to power the entire car, but enough to switch the engine off and on when the car is at a standstill, for instance at traffic lights."

A total of nine European companies and institutes are a part of the project. Volvo Cars is the only car manufacturer participating.