What’s Lighting Up the Web: Carbon Fiber

Carbon fiber may not yet be a household term, but it is certainly present in many of our lives. Chances are your bicycle or tennis racket contains a composite made up of thousands of thin strands of this extremely light and durable material. Eventually our vehicles may contain greater quantities of carbon fiber as well.

Due to its lightweight yet durable properties, carbon fiber is catching the attention of automakers who seek greater fuel economy, and lower emissions  (read more about shedding vehicle weight as a key enabler of electrification). Until now, however, this application has been relegated to concept cars or prohibitively priced sports cars.

Last week, BMW opened the doors to a new carbon fiber manufacturing facility in Moses Lake, Washington. The result of a $100 million joint venture with SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers, the plant will manufacture lightweight materials for BMW’s i3 and i8 models. Although the latter model will likely be priced at over $100,000, the i3 will carry a more typical BMW price tag—about $50,000.

What’s exciting, though, is that a manufacturing plant in the U.S. will be producing carbon fiber components for vehicles at a scale we haven’t yet seen—with potentially dramatic implications for improvements in fuel economy across the auto industry. In a recent RMI post, we discussed how transitioning to advanced composites—as compared to design optimized for metals—could vault automakers into the realm of 150 + mpg, and capture safety and performance benefits that vault automakers past the competition.

RMI spin-off, Fiberforge—a technology company enabling high volume, low cost production of carbon fiber—is also getting much deserved attention. As reported on Aspen Public Radio, the company is expanding its workforce in response to recent orders for military helicopter parts. As many companies are cutting back, Fiberforge is thriving and creating much-needed jobs.

As the demand for fuel efficient vehicles increases, so too will the production of light-weight components. Perhaps in the years to come, the work of Fiberforge and BMW will raise the profile carbon fiber as a key material for improving energy efficiency and our energy future.

Check out the following articles for more information:

Hiring? Expanding? Recession? What’s Fiberforge doing right?, Aspen Public Radio

Carbon Fiber Gets Ready for its Close-up, CNN Money

Taking Fuel Economy Further, RMI Outlet

Lightweighting Key to Overcome Barriers to Electrification, RMI Outlet