Get Ready for the Carbon Fiber Revolution

BMW i8 and i3

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!


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  1. Steel or Aluminium is far more manufacturer friendly as Randy notes a single stamping press is all thats needed to produce panels or parts thereof, that will keep CF out of mainstream cars.

  2. @ tgriffith
    Thanks for your research TG. I found Zoltek on my own but Hexcel looks very interesting to me. As for Hitco, I can’t find a stock symbol for it. Maybe because it is a subsidiary, it doesn’t have its own symbol.

  3. The main problem with carbon fiber compared to steel is manufacturability. That CF panel that must be laid up can be punched out by the hundreds in the time it takes to make the single panel. Therefore, at production quantities you must have many, many molding die and lots of labor, versus a single automated press line for steel. So the cost, as usual, isn’t simply the extra cost of the raw material, it’s the intensive manufacturing process that makes CF so expensive. And because CF bats must be laid out in precise patterns to produce the required strength, it is also much harder to make than fiberglass.

  4. @ panayoti
    Hello sir-
    Zoltek is on NASDAQ and produces carbon fiber, at last check trading at about $7.40.
    Dow Chemical is on the NYSE and, I believe, produces it or will very soon.
    Hexcel is another NYSE company that has announced it will expand its CF production.
    One more… HITCO, a subsidiary of SGL (referenced in my story) is on the NYSE too.

  5. TG, can you find out what companies on the NYSE stock exchange make carbon fiber?? I feel that this is something that people can invest in and if they have patience, could stand to make some money. This has been talked about for quite some time now and its use other than autos is become more feasible if the cost continues to drop. I believe that its primary use will come in areas other than autos because bean counters there won’t allow its use to proliferate because of tight margins on production. Companies like BMW et al, can an will because they can pass the cost on to consumers. Recreational uses such as boating, fishing, golf are early adopters and will probably dominate in the use of carbon fiber.

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