September 11, 2006 1:50 PM PDT

Here comes the everyday carbon fiber car

Five times stronger than steel and a heck of a lot lighter, carbon fiber is making its way into more cars than ever before.

Carbon fiber has been used to make car bodies but in limited ways: McLaren annually makes a few hundred sports cars from it and hobbyists make shells to transform Volkswagens into something resembling a Hot Wheels toys.

But since carbon fiber is stronger, tougher and lighter than steel and can increase fuel efficiency because of its lower weight, major manufacturers are finally getting in on trend.

BMW is ramping up production on the M6, according to Zsolt Rumy, CEO of Zoltek Companies, a St. Louis-based manufacturer of carbon fiber and supplier to BMW. The M6 has carbon fiber front and rear bumpers, a carbon roof, and carbon beams and internal structures. The cars have begun to roll out in Europe, and some will eventually come to the U.S. In 2007, BMW will make around 60 of them a day.

"In the Corvette, GM is also starting to use carbon fiber," Rumy said during a presentation at the ThinkEquity Partners Growth Equity Conference being held in San Francisco this week.

Carbon fiber has been a market waiting to take off for years. It was invented for the aircraft industry a few decades ago and spread into sporting goods and other markets but in a limited fashion. It wasn't until 2005 that demand really accelerated, Rumy said. One of the big market drivers turned out to be wind turbines, which have 50-meter-long carbon fiber blades.

"It is five times stronger than steel and two times as stiff as steel," Rumy said.

New aircraft designs helped drive demand as well. The Boeing 787 is 60 percent carbon fiber, and the much-anticipated Airbus A380 is 50 percent carbon fiber.

Zoltek, which is not profitable, has long had a goal of bringing down carbon fiber pricing to $5 a pound. A recent spike in the cost of raw materials, however, has bumped the price of carbon fiber to $8.50 a pound.

Still, that price is low enough to drive demand, or at least to not crimp it as companies learn to work with the material. "The cost of carbon fiber is no longer the problem," he said. Zoltek had capacity to make 7 million pounds a year in 2005 and will expand that to 30 million pounds a year by 2008.

Large manufacturers, such as Formosa Plastics (which owns chipmaker Via Technologies) are also getting into the market, he said.

The aerospace industry currently consumes about 41 percent of the carbon fiber made, but that will drop to 29 percent by 2009.

Demand, in fact, could lead to slight shortages over the next few years, Rumy said.

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16 comments

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Time for everyday electric car
New body materials should usher in new propulsion systems.
It's time to support an all-electric automible. The hydrogen and
fuel cell systems change nothing about our dependence upon
the oil companies. An all electric like the Tesla Roadster or a
better hybrid like the Toyota Alessandro Volta Concept would
make very good use of carbon fibre if they do not do so already.
Revolutionary changes are happening in the garages and
workshops of gearheads and computer people alike. The next
generation of autos is being born there. Carbon fibre will bring
us further independence from the old economy with its
advantages over steel. It's not just for Lance's bicycles anymore.
Posted by yupasama (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
that's all well and good, except they haven't made an all electric vehichle that will take people from the commuter stage into the cross country stage and until that time, electric vehichle's will not make the bandwagon your hoping to achieve....not to say they haven't made strides....examples are: ultra capasitors/ fuel cells made with carbon and not platinum (still oil dependent) and others....no my friend, we're still about 15 years off
Posted by hotelecho (1 comment )
Link Flag
Hmm...
Electric doesn't entirely mean clean vehicles.. it just means the pollution is concentrated elsewhere. Instead of it coming out your tailpipe it comes out of the large number of places that still burn coal or use oil or gas for generation.. and the output of those places will be increased drastically (along with their pollution output) if everyone were to drive electric cars. Sure, there are some places that have hydro-electricity but the majority of electrical output is still either fossil fuel based or nuclear.
Posted by Mmmhmm (103 comments )
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Clean
Yes, electric generation pollutes, but not nearly as much as gas burning cars. Large generators, even the ones powered by coal or even the few that are powered by petrol, more than double a car's engine efficiency and have about one fourth the emissions per power unit. That's due to several factors, including that they are extremely large, static engines, they run at lower speeds so they make a more complete combustion, they run at constant, peak efficiency speed, they are properly maintained and monitored and they are designed for efficiency, not for power.
Combine that with the fact that an electric propultion produces fewer losses (simpler/no transmission and differentials means fewer losses, no idling, always at close to peak efficiency, regenerative braking, etc.) and you have a way more efficient propulsion system than directly burning dead plankton.
Posted by herby67 (144 comments )
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Electric is cleaner than gas
Charging electric cars does produce pollution at the power plant, but the overall amount is a lot less. In California, only 18 percent of electricity consumed comes from coal burning plants. (Note, this is consumed, not generated so it takes into account cross state transmissions)

Only in states like Ohio where 80 percent or more of electricity comes from coal do you approach parity and even then new plant scrubbers will give electric an advantage.
Posted by michael kanellos (65 comments )
Link Flag
If you want to get very technical, the only "clean" energy that can be produced on Earth is from the sun, wind, geothermal, or water. In fact, all fossil fuels and nuclear material will eventually run out, then the only source of power will be from the sun, wind, earth, or water. Unless of course, you go into space and collect stray deuterium molecules...
Posted by keegan95 (5 comments )
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not so cheap (for the good stuff)
yes the materials are cheap, but turning carbon fiber cloth into a fender or hood is an expensive process. While the "wet" carbon fiber (what most carbon fiber ascetic pieces are made of) is cheap. Dry carbon fiber which is much stronger and lighter is quite expensive, running at least $2000 for a hood.
Posted by rawker (12 comments )
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Carbon F. bikes are getting more expensive because DoD is using this more
It's hard to get trek carbon fiber bikes because DoD needs the good stuff.

So its creating supply problems.
Posted by baswwe (299 comments )
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Thank The Military
Think all the money poured into the stealth bomber went for nothing? Both the military and NASA is where we get our finest technology leaps.
Posted by schneb (7 comments )
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short articles are very biased.
this article is too short to give a complete comparison between carbonfiber and steel. Titanium is lighter, stronger, and stiffer than steel per volume as well. Things like notch factor and impact resistance, as well as pure cost prevent them from replacing steel so easily. If you put a chip or dent in steel, it wont be affected too much. if there are any imperfections in the weave or resin or if you put a chip in carbon fiber, the stress will collect there faster and break more easily. In certain applications, such as in aircraft manufacturing, the structures are maintained well and engineered for routine operations. With cars, you have to create safety for accidents and I don't think carbon-fiber will be very good at saving you, designs to do that are even more expensive. For now, plastic bodies and steel frames do best.
Posted by projektdrift (1 comment )
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The real cost of carbon fiber...
Carbon fiber is stronger and lighter than steel, so a car made of mostly carbon fiber will have a better power/weight ratio than an average car, which means better fuel economy. Now, take that car and get into a car accident. Do you know how much it would cost to repair a carbon fiber fender or a bumper?
Posted by thedreaming (573 comments )
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Carbon fiber has been popular to add to tuner cars for a long time. I think vis racing opened over ten years ago and as far as i know they were really the first to start selling carbon fiber on a large scale. Now you can replace almost any part of a new car with carbon fiber. <a href="http://www.carbonfiberhoods.net">Carbon fiber hoods</a> are actually even cheaper than a factory OEM hood. It'd be nice if manufacturers started providing oem carbon fiber parts though.
Posted by ctosborne (1 comment )
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Zoltek has a subsidiary called Zoltek Automotive, they have a <a href=?www.zoltek.com?>carbon fiber</a> product specifically designed for use in the auto industry. More here: http://www.compositesmanufacturingblog.com/2010/08/qa-which-automakers-are-most-likely-to-use-composites/
Posted by John-Kowalik (2 comments )
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Zoltek has a subsidiary called Zoltek Automotive, they have a carbon fiber product specifically designed for use in the auto industry. More here: www.zoltek.com Or here: http://www.compositesmanufacturingblog.com/2010/08/qa-which-automakers-are-most-likely-to-use-composites/
Posted by John-Kowalik (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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