In Europe, the average car weighed about 1,400 kilograms in 2012, says a report by the European Commission. The emissions from an average vehicle of this weight are estimated to be 132 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer travelled. These figures vary only marginally in different parts of the world. Thus, if the automotive industry is to achieve lower emissions and an increase in fuel efficiency, it is evident that vehicles will have to be made lighter. This is only possible by incorporating lightweight yet structurally stable materials in automotive chassis, under-the-hood components, and interiors.
Materials experts are confident that carbon fiber is the material that can make this happen. Although the buzz in the automotive industry is that carbon fiber will become a mainstream material in the next decade, a look at the current scenario tells us that this is far from becoming a reality.
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Carbon fiber is light, no doubt. But it is also expensive. And in an industry defined by price wars, companies will not make the switch to carbon fiber until and unless they can achieve price points that will entice customers. Only when then happens will carbon fiber move from being limited to race cars to becoming the standard material in commercial and passenger vehicles.
It might take a while, but this change will have far-reaching effects. The global carbon fiber market is currently witnessing a high degree of research and innovation, especially in the automotive sector. Here’s a brief overview of the current carbon fiber innovations that have made the headlines in the automotive industry:
From Race Cars to Bicycles, McLaren’s Carbon Fiber Innovation Firmly on Track
McLaren pioneered the use of carbon fiber in race cars when its celebrated model – the McLaren MP4/1 – drove out onto the track in March 1981. With this, the conventional race car chassis turned a corner, paving the way for the ubiquity of carbon fiber in motorsports. Three decades later, McLaren continues to be a first-mover in carbon fiber innovation.
Today, McLaren’s MonoCage and MonoCell automotive chassis represent the cutting edge of automotive materials innovation. The racing major has since applied its automotive carbon fiber expertise to other areas such as the S-Works+McLaren Venge and S-Works McLaren Tarmac cycle models in partnership with bicycle maker Specialized.
Ford Joins Hands with DowAksa to Formulate Special Grade Automotive Carbon Fiber
While carbon fiber manufacturing has stepped out of its nascent stage, the next question is: How can high-volume carbon fiber manufacturing be achieved? Ford has partnered with DowAksa to find a definitive (and economically viable) answer to this question. In April 2015, the two entities jointly announced a research project that will explore ways to manufacture automotive carbon fiber in high volumes. DowAksa will use its existing infrastructure and capacities to facilitate the research project while Ford will contribute by means of engineering know-how, design, and industrial-scale manufacturing experience.
The two companies will join the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), which is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DEA) but comes under the purview of the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation. For several years now, the two factors that have deterred automakers from embracing carbon fiber are a lack of high-volume manufacturing techniques and affordability.
Meanwhile, the SGL Group has collaborated with chemical titan BASF to test the efficacy of a new polyamide-carbon-fiber composite for automotive applications.
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Carbon Fibers Recycling is an Area that Needs More Attention
The other concern that carbon fiber market participants face is difficulties in recycling the material. These issues are also being addressed by entities such as SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers that are engaged in providing innovative carbon fiber recycling solutions with their RECAFIL® recycled carbon fibers.
Nevertheless, the fact that research endeavors have picked up pace in the automotive sector are a positive indicator of the shape of things to come.