German automakers are flocking toward carbon fiber rather than steel in producing green vehicles over the next decade. The latest automaker to adopt the material for vehicle body construction is BMW, which recently announced a $100 million investment in a carbon fiber plant. This lightweight material has been used for years by cycle manufacturers and Formula One race teams looking to gain an edge on the competition. BMW’s long-term investment in carbon fiber will not only reduce vehicle weight across the fleet but push competitors to develop lighter vehicles.
Representatives from BMW announced plans to expand a nearly completed carbon fiber plant in Moses Lake, Washington. This central Washington location will start production of carbon fiber this fall with an annual capacity of 1,500 tons. These materials would be shipped to BMW’s processing plants in Germany where carbon fiber would be shaped into vehicle frames. BMW is adopting carbon frames for the i3 battery-electric car and the i8 hybrid sports car prior to their 2013 releases.
BMW joins Daimler and Audi in turning the German auto industry into a leader in carbon fiber use. Daimler is working with Japanese firm Toray to build a carbon fiber plant in Esslingen, Germany by fall 2012. This plant would focus initially on vehicle frames for the SL Roadster, a luxury vehicle priced from $102,600. Audi is consulting with Voith GmbH on converting existing facilities with carbon fiber machinery. Voith’s hardware would help Audi produce the R8 sports car and the RS3 compact car in greater quantities for European consumers.
The common bond among these automakers is SGL Carbon SE, which specializes in developing carbon fiber machinery. SGL Carbon SE is among a handful of firms worldwide that have conducted research into carbon fiber necessary to help automakers. BMW’s announcement encouraged major shareholder Susanne Klatten to invest heavily in SGL Carbon SE. Volkswagen and Daimler have invested in the firm recently with Volkswagen buying nearly 10% of available stock. Audi’s partner Voith has invested enough to become SGL’s third largest investor.
This rush into carbon fiber is occurring despite the incredible costs of the material at present. Carbon fiber costs nearly 20 times more per pound than steel. Automakers like BMW are concerned that eco-friendly drive systems will have little impact on fuel economy due to heavy steel frames and batteries. A carbon fiber frame is 50% lighter than a steel frame while reducing emissions during production. Lingering issues like longer production times and difficulties shaping carbon fiber will remain in the early stages of development. BMW, Audi, Volkswagen and other investors in carbon fiber should help improve production processes while creating greater demand for this lightweight material.