If I got in my car this afternoon and hit traffic right, I could be at a new BMW plant in about 90 minutes.
Not bad for a guy living in the far reaches of Washington State, huh?
The new plant, which was opened last week by BMW chairman Norbert Reithofer in Moses Lake, Wash., is a joint venture between SGL Group and BMW. The plant won’t produce cars, but the carbon fiber that will be used to build cars in the not-so-distant future.
The fact that a major automaker has committed roughly $100 million solely for the production of the once-exotic material is surely a sign of things to come. Will steel become a material of the past while carbon fiber jumps to the forefront of automotive manufacturing?
Not long ago the use of carbon fiber was a selling point on exotic cars from Bugatti, Lamborghini and Ferrari. The material has moved down market a little, into select BMWs, for instance, and it won’t be long before consumers expect to see the material used in many more new cars. BMW could very well pioneer the use of mass-produced carbon fiber by using it extensively in its new i3 electric city car and i8 hybrid supercar. In fact, the i3 will be the first vehicle to feature a passenger compartment made fully from carbon fibers.
Carbon fiber consists of thin strands of carbon woven into a yarn that in turn can be made into cloth. The cloth is then laid over a mold and stiffened with resin to produce a sheet of material stronger, but much lighter, than steel. The downside to carbon fiber, obviously, is cost. Once costing as much as $150 per pound, prices have come down to about $10 per pound. That’s still roughly 10-20 times the price of steel.
Carbon fiber, though, is a technology that’s here now and can instantly improve the fuel efficiency of new cars. So yes, it’s expensive, but with companies like BMW paving the way to produce it in mass quantities, the price will come down and we could very well see it replacing steel in cars of the future.
Should more automakers invest in the production of carbon fiber? It seems like a sure way to increase fuel economy in any car!