Guest Editorial: Will Carbon Fiber be Ready to Join the 54.5-mpg Battle?

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By Lindsay Brooke, Senior Editor, Automotive Engineering International SAE International®

 If ever there was a cause for bold thinking in the way light-duty vehicles are engineered and constructed, it’s the latest round of U.S. Corporate average Fuel economy regulations. and with the new CAFE, the opportunity ???????????????????????????????for carbon fiber to finally break into mainstream use has arrived. But will the strong, lightweight material and the processes needed to make it cost competitive be ready?

CAFE calls for a 99% improvement in each automaker’s fleet fuel efficiency through 2025, compared with 2011. For an industry that prides itself on squeezing single-digit efficiency gains from its products, achieving a 99% leap forward — 54.5 miles / gal  (mpg) — in less than four product cycles from today will take a herculean effort. The daunting goal will be toughest for those full-line makers with larger pickup trucks and utilities, the most frugal of which currently eke out 25 mpg on the highway.

As SPE members know, vehicle mass reduction is one of the strategic pillars in the drive to 54.5. Product planners want to reduce vehicle curb weights by up to 750 pounds without sacrificing the size and functionality customers love—and without raising cost significantly. It’s a tricky feat. It requires new materials and new processing solutions, some of which already are appearing on the technology roadmaps of those full-line companies.

For the materials industries, the new CAFE regs are heating up competition like it was the 1980s again. Back then the plastics industry was mustering an all-out blitz on steel’s dominance. Plastic-bodied concepts headlined auto shows. Plastic fenders and liftgates were replacing their steel counterparts on production cars, and GM was launching plastic-bodied space-frame architectures for the Pontiac Fiero, the U-body “dust- buster” minivans, and the multi-billion-dollar Saturn program.

The plastics industry pushed hard and gained marketshare, while it scrambled to resolve quality issues related to the thermal-expansion coefficients of some materials. But as hard as plastics pushed, steel responded to the threat by rolling up its sleeves and pushing back harder. Instead of allowing themselves to be swept under the tsunami of PC/ABS, MPPE/PA, and SMC, the steelmakers innovated. They revamped manufacturing processes and brought new and lighter alloys to production. Most importantly, they worked with their customers on holistic, cost-saving processes.

It was a call-to-arms level of focus. Steel’s effort became a case study in how an industry sector can respond successfully to a competitive challenge. For the march toward 2017-2025 CAFE, it appears the aluminum industry will challenge steel as the primary material for automotive body structures and exterior panels. The boldest example of this is Ford’s decision to switch its bread- winning F-Series pickups to an aluminum-intensive body and cargo box in 2015.

It will be a costly and somewhat risky move. But what other available material can enable significant mass to be shed while meeting the manufacturability, crashworthiness, repairability, long-term durability, cost, recyclability, and sheer throughput requirements (60 jobs per hour!) of a mainstream vehicle program?

This is where I would cue the drum roll and trumpet fanfare for carbon fiber and advanced composites, but the band isn’t yet ready to sound those tones. When will it be, then? Recent progress has made me cautiously optimistic that carbon fiber’s decades-long promise beyond specialty applications may indeed be realized in time to help OEMs meet CAFE 2025.

My view comes from what’s happening on the front lines of CF development. The collective work is aimed at dramatically scaling-up the capability to serve automotive volumes with robust products, improved process technologies, and lower materials cost.

At their joint-venture plant in Moses Lake, Washington, BMW and SGL have made a $100-million bet that carbon-fiber-intensive vehicle structures, initially for BMW’s 2014 i3, are indeed ready for prime time. (The facility and its managers made a quite positive impression on me during a recent visit.) In Walker, Michigan, Plasan Carbon Composites’ new 200,000- ft2 facility has begun mid-volume (40-50,000 units/year) pro- duction of CF parts for the 2014 Corvette Stingray with a new process technology that dramatically shortens machine and curing cycle times.

And at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Labs in Knoxville, Tennessee that has led carbon fiber R&D in the U.S. for years, projects to develop low-cost precursors based on kraft lignin (a by-product of papermaking), commodity-grade PAN as a precursor, to reduce precursor conversion costs using microwave energy-generated plasmas, and to slash equipment costs and precursor-oxidation time, are ongoing and promising.

The expanding list  of  pre-competitive  industry  collaboration is encouraging, to say the least. Indeed, it’s getting easier to count the global OEMs who aren’t working together on carbon fiber projects than to count those who are. Besides BMW and SGl, Toray is working with Toyota, Fuji Heavy Industries, and Daimler while its major Japanese competitor, Teijin, has a venture with General Motors. Ford and Dow-Aksa are partners. Audi is working with Voith, the third-largest shareholder in SGl, of which VW owns a minor share. There’s even a deal between Lamborghini, Quantum Composites, and Callaway Golf.

Perhaps more remarkable, there’s CALM—the Coalition of Automotive Lightweighting Materials. Formed last year with support from the American Chemistry Council and the Aluminum Association’s Aluminum Transportation Group, CALM combines the strengths of the aluminum and composites/plastics industries with technology providers in design, fabrication, and joining. Their collective goal is to support OEM efforts to reduce vehicle weight.

Whenever I air the words “carbon fiber” among industry engineers, the high cost of the raw material gets the greatest play. It’s difficult to talk about CF’s many attributes when its average price of $12 or more per pound compares with about $2.50/pound for aluminum and about a buck a pound for typical high-strength steels. But solutions for narrowing that delta are coming at a faster rate, industry leaders tell me.

“Our goal is to match the cost of aluminum, and we’re not yet there,” Dr. Joerg Pohlman, SGl automotive’s managing director, said during my visit to Moses Lake. “But we foresee the day in the next few years where we can match aluminum’s cost in a full vehicle body structure.”

If Dr. Pohlman’s vision is realized, carbon fiber may play more than a minor role in the CAFE battle.

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