The problem with hybrid and electric vehicles is they have to drag their clunky batteries along with them, wasting energy as they go and limiting range and power.

But what if car roofs, doors, floors and spare-tire wells could be made of a lightweight, durable composite with the ability to store energy safely and feed it to the electric motor, allowing batteries to be smaller and fewer in number?

It sounds like fantasy, but a new €3.37 million ($4.46 million) European research project aims to turn this idea from science fiction to fact.

Volvo Car and the Imperial College of the University of London are heading up the work and already have developed a carbon-fiber and polymer resin composite that can store and release electricity.

The “STORAGE” project will spend the next three years trying to determine whether the material can be used in car body panels and be charged overnight. The researchers also are looking at how the material might store friction energy generated during braking.

“We think the car of the future could be drawing power from its roof, its (hood) or even the door, thanks to our new composite material,” says project coordinator Emile Greenhalgh, a member of the Imperial College’s aeronautics department.

Even a car’s navigation system could be powered by its own casing, he says.

The project’s goal is a 15% weight savings for hybrids and EVs, which not only would allow for a smaller battery but would free up packaging space.

If the new composite could be used to power nearby components, such as the radio, it would reduce wiring requirements and help eliminate electrical faults.

Greenhalgh believes the material will be able to store and discharge energy more quickly than conventional batteries. And because there would be no chemical reaction involved, recharging would not degrade capacity over time, the way it does with a battery.

The research team already has proven the composite’s electrical property works. Project scientists now are working on ways to mold the material into suitable door panels and vehicle floors and roofs and to make its power flow where needed.

Sweden’s Volvo is developing a prototype that replaces the thick metal surrounding spare tire wells with the new lightweight composite and reducing the number of batteries used to power an electric vehicle’s motor.

ETC Battery and Fuel Cells Sweden AB also is part of the consortium, as are Umeco plc’s Advanced Composites Group operations in the U.K. and U.S., the Swedish Institute of Composites and Belgian carbon nanotubes specialists Nanocyl.