A revitalized auto industry emerged from the Great Recession in 2012 leaner and, in terms of health-related concerns, cleaner, too, but faced a one-two punch in terms of fuel economy and carbon-dioxide (CO2) emission standards that put intense focus on vehicle lightweighting: Much tougher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards in the U.S. (54.5 mpge by 2025), and in the European Union, new CO2 emissions restrictions, which will reduce passenger cars emission limits from 130g of CO2/km today to much more difficult-to-achieve 95g CO2/km in 2020. Significantly, the 13 major automakers that produce more than 90 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S., announced their support for the new standards. So in 2013, many took seriously the proposition that carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRPs) must play a key role in meeting these standards. Improved auto sales helped: Online auto market analyst Edmunds.com predicted sales of 15 million light vehicle sales in 2013, or an increase of about 4 percent over the 14.4 million vehicles sold in 2012. The sales surge continues to be driven, in large part, by the release of pent-up demand from buyers who deferred buying or leasing a new vehicle during the recession. The market was also expected to receive a boost from nearly 500,000 more lease returners, compared to 2012, who were expected to buy or lease a new vehicle when their leases terminate.
Of the 59 new vehicle introductions at the 2013 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS 2013, (Jan. 14-27, Detroit, Mich.) nine were exclusive to the North American market, New and revamped hybrid-electric and all-electric vehicles shared the spotlight with fresh introductions of more fuel-efficient pickup trucks and technology- and perk-laden SUVs and luxury cars.
All these new arrivals, however, were overshadowed by the debut of the first preseries BMW i3, which had just rolled off the BMW Group’s (Munich, Germany) production line. The all-electric, composites-intensive commuter car was scheduled to come on the market by the end of 2013.
The i3 sports a carbon fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) passenger cell and the vehicle reportedly sets new standards for lightweight construction, weighing 250 to 350 kg (551 to 771 lb) less than a comparable electric car, with a range of about 150 km/93 miles per charge. And on March 8, BMW’s Leipzig, Germany, factory took delivery of two ENGEL (Schwertberg, Austria) injection molding machines that will be used for rate production of lightweight thermoplastic composite parts for i3 car body shells.
But at the 2013 JEC Europe Innovation Awards in late March, the VéLV (le Véhicule électrique Léger de Ville) from automaker PSA Peugeot Citroën SA (Paris, France) took the spotlight. This urban commuter car features three seats and sports an empty weight of only 700 kg/1,543 lb — 130 kg/286 lb of which is battery. Its per-charge driving range is said to be 100 km/62 miles. The glass fiber/epoxy vinyl ester body is a polyurethane (PU)-cored sandwich structure joined to an aluminum spaceframe. In production, the body will be turned out by resin transfer molding (RTM). Builders say the glass-fiber body weighs about 80 kg/176 lb, but also note that the use of carbon fiber reinforcement could shave that to a mere 50 kg/110 lb.
Just as significant, however, was the late-September revelation that Toray Industries (Tokyo, Japan) was to buy Zoltek Inc. (St. Louis, Mo.) for approximately $584 million. Dale Brosius, an industry observer and consultant, and president of Quickstep Composites (Dayton Ohio), called this event a watershed for the use of carbon composites in automobiles. Noting that Toray has quietly invested in auto composites in Europe and the U.S. for more than a decade, Brosius said, “The missing piece for Toray was low-cost carbon fiber that would make the economics work in the quest to replace steel and aluminum in cars. Zoltek provides that missing ingredient, and has significant capacity in low-cost precursor and carbonization lines. Just as significant, the Toray name legitimizes large tow as the future of the carbon fiber industry.” (See his full commentary on the purchase in “Toray + Zoltek = Potential game changer?” under “Editor’s Picks.”)
And that’s the most recent capper on the still-unfolding story of major development agreements between composite material suppliers and auto OEMs. They include the following:
Cytec Industrial Materials (formerly Umeco, Heanor, U.K.) joined Aston Martin Lagonda (Gaydon, Warwick, U.K.), Delta Motorsport Ltd. (Northants, U.K.), ABB Robotics (Zurich, Switzerland) and Pentangle Engineering Services Ltd. (Grantham, Lincolnshire, U.K.) in ACOMPLICE (Affordable COMPosites for LIghtweight Car structurEs), a consortium that will address the need to manufacture lightweight, fuel-efficient vehicles that meet reduced CO2 emission targets. Believing that the physical limitations of aluminum and steel alloys have been reached, the team will develop an automated manufacturing system that will combine robotics and a new a range of prepreg and Cytec’s (formerly Umeco’s) Dform materials that will reportedly snap-cure in three to four minutes during a press-forming process, which will puts the system in line with automotive production volume requirements.
Detroit, Mich.-based General Motors Co. and fiber source Teijin (Tokyo, Japan) followed, trumpeting a part-per-minute process for carbon fiber/thermoplastics. To enable further R&D, Teijin opened the Teijin Composite Application Center in Auburn Hills, Mich.
In the U.S., Cytec Industries Inc. (Woodland Park, N.J.) announced in August 2012 that it had entered into a strategic collaboration with Coventry, U.K.-based luxury vehicle manufacturer Jaguar Land Rover to develop designs, materials and manufacturing concepts for the cost-effective composites automotive structures. Cytec said it would leverage not only its existing capabilities but also what it calls “state-of-the-art application development capabilities” in the U.K., gained as a result of the recent acquisition of Umeco Plc (Heanor, Derbyshire, U.K.), a participant in the ACOMPLICE consortium.
Automotive composites manufacturer Plasan Carbon Composites (Bennington, Vt.), now benefiting from Toray’s ownership interest, demonstrated a 17-minute cycle time on a six-layer carbon fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) test plaque from press close to press open, shaving 73 minutes off the typical layup, vacuum bag and autoclave cycle time in 2012. In 2013, Plasan’s CTO and engineering manager Gary Lownsdale confirmed an 11-minute cycle and claimed that it is possible to mold the part in as few as two minutes.
A 2012 partnership joined Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, Mich.), Dow Automotive Systems (Auburn Hills, Mich.) and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tenn.). On June 12, that year, this group was awarded $9 million by the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE), and $4.5 million more from private sources to develop a low-cost carbon fiber precursor made from polyolefin to replace traditional polyacrylonitrile (PAN). The lab’s pilot carbon fiber line opened in February 2013.
Two weeks later, Dow, through its subsidiary Dow Europe Holding BV, and acrylic fiber source Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii AS (Istanbul, Turkey), announced a joint venture, DowAksa Advanced Composites Holdings BV, that will manufacture and commercialize carbon fiber and derivatives. By October, Ford’s efforts had already borne fruit. The Ford European Research Centre (Aachen, Germany) unveiled a prototype carbon fiber hood.
And Japan-based giants Toyota, Toray Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries (all headquartered in Tokyo) announced plans to produce carbon composite hoods and roofs for Toyota’s Lexus luxury cars as early as 2013.
Notably, by September 2013 at the Composite Europe Show (Stuttgart, Germany), composite car hoods were in abundance: A carbon fiber/epoxy design developed by the Institut für Kunststoffverarbeitung (Aachen, Germany) and machinery maker Breyer Composites (Singen, Germany) in cooperation with Ford was molded via gap-impregnation resin transfer molding. In the process, a preform is loaded into a Breyer horizontal press. The press is closed, but not fully, and the preform is held 3 mm/0.118 inch away from the mold surface by a series of pins located on each side of the mold. Epoxy is injected, the pins retract, and the mold closes completely, forcing resin up into the preform. Circulating hot water helps keep cycle time to 15 minutes and the hood is ready for paint out of the mold. No word on whether or not Ford will actually put this part into production.
Taking a different tack were molder Magna Steyr (Oberwaltersdorf, Austria), polyurethane (PU) expert Rühl Puromer (Friedrichsdorf Germany), and machine maker Hennecke (Sankt Augustin, Germany). These partners developed a honeycomb-cored glass/PU demo hood. Magna says the process produces a finished part with a Class A surface every five minutes.
Moldmaker Frimo (Lotte, Germany) split the difference, showing a demo hood with a sandwich construction of carbon fiber skins and a foam core from 3D Core (Herford, Germany) infused with foaming polyurethane in a low-pressure process. Also inmold decorated, the parts emerge ready for use with a highly textured surface. The process, say Frimo officials, has a five-minute cycle time.
All three of these processes, say representatives, are adaptable to other large vehicle structures, like door, body and roof panels.
All this is pushing composites growth. Worldwide, says Lucintel’s program manager Chuck Kazmierski, automotive composites should see 7 percent average yearly growth, reaching $3.97 billion in 2017. Kazmierski points out that there is generous room for growth. The average automobile still contains roughly 2,000 lb/907 kg of steel and 600 lb/272 kg of aluminum. Composites account for 112 lb/51 kg. (Notably, 35 lb/16 kg of that is natural-fiber-reinforced.) And Kazmierski estimates that if carbon fiber were available at half the current price, it could, as early as 2017, make up 10 percent (on average, by weight) of the luxury cars and 1 percent of the production passenger cars. If so, automakers would use 305 million lb (nearly 138,400 metric tonnes) of fiber, worth about $1.525 billion.
In late 2013, Composites Forecasts and Consulting’s (Mesa, Ariz.) Chris Red predicted that during 2013, the CFRP volumes delivered to automotive OEMs would reach nearly 16.5 million lb (7,484 metric tonnes), but noted that that amounts to about 6.5 percent of automotive composites and a miniscule 0.05 percent of the total global automotive materials requirement.
Red noted that the BMW i3’s projected annual production volumes, targeted at 30,000 vehicles, will make it the largest-volume production car ever to make such extensive use of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP). At that level, he adds, the i3 alone could consume more than 9.6 million lb/4,355 metric tonnes of finished CFRP structure each year. The i3 is one of approximately 100 vehicle models around the world that feature at least some standard equipment (that is, not special order) made from carbon composites. Many are niche luxury vehicles and supercars or million-dollar hypercars; together they consume an estimated 11 million lb (4,990 metric tonnes) of CFRP structures annually worldwide. That means the i3 program over two or three years will almost double the global demand for automotive CFRP.
According to Red, the total weight of CFRP components will grow from 16.5 million lb (7,486 metric tonnes) in 2013 to 36 million lb (16,334 metric tonnes) in 2016. By 2022 the total weight of carbon composites going into cars annually could exceed 100 million lb (nearly 453,600 metric tonnes). To support the manufacture of this quantity of finished CFRP parts, the automotive supply chain will require nearly 95 million lb (39,225 metric tonnes) of raw carbon fiber, he says, adding that, today, the auto industry consumes about 3.5 percent of the global carbon fiber production capacity, but by 2022 that could grow to nearly 25 percent.
Heightened interest in carbon fiber came on the heels, ironically, of auto industry acceptance of the fact that the much hoped for advent of $5/lb ($11/kg) carbon fiber was always a pipe dream. Inflation alone, noted CW editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan in a January 2013 column, would make that dream, in 2013, a $10/lb proposition (see “Waiting for $5/lb carbon fiber?, under “Editor’s Picks”). Nevertheless, a significantly less expensive carbon fiber, made from an alternative precursor, is still a live option. And Ross Kozarsky, senior analyst at Lux Research (Boston, Mass.), reported that his research indicates non-PAN materials do have a future as a precursor, but that production of fibers from them would require significant innovations in oxidization and carbonization during the carbon fiber manufacturing process and would benefit only those who make standard- and intermediate-modulus fiber.
Current precursor efforts are focused on textile-grade PAN, which is less expensive. Kozarsky said that ORNL/Dow Automotve and SGL Group, through FISIPE, the Barreiro, Portugal-based precursor manufacturer it recently acquired, are on this path. He believed ORNL’s textile-grade PAN-based carbon fiber line would come online in 2013 and achieve carbon fiber unit costs of about $19.30/kg ($11/kg = $5/lb). This could lead, by 2016, to development of precursor based on melt-spun PAN and carbon fiber prices of $15.90/kg. By 2017, he added, assuming advances on the oxidization and carbonization side, the industry could expect a polyolefin-based PAN and carbon fiber price potential of $10.50/kg — below the $11/kg threshold.
“None of these innovations, taken alone, can reduce the cost enough,” Kozarsky warned. “It must be a combination of technology and innovation.”
All that aside, the big push in 2013, in fact, was not in fiber development but rather in process optimization. “What is dropping is mold cycle time,” noted SB editor-in-chief Jeff Sloan. “We’ve come a long way since autoclaved prepreg was the only way to go.” Teijin, for example, says it is fine-tuning a 60-second process for the molding of carbon fiber/thermoplastic parts for automotive applications. Dieffenbacher and KraussMaffei have jointly developed a three-minute part-to-part process to mold carbon fiber/thermoset parts — in use right now by Audi. Quickstep reported at Carbon Fiber 2012 on its efforts to develop Resin Spray Transmission for the high-speed manufacture of automotive parts. And Globe Machine continues work with Plasan Carbon Composites on its high-speed molding process.
Topping all this activity off was the rise of a new and significant buzzword: multi-material. The multi-material vehicle, a concept championed notably from the autoracing fringe by maverick entrepreneur Oliver Kuttner whose electric vehicle incubator, Edison2 LLC (Lynchburg, Va.), introduced a electric-powered passenger car prototype, the Very Light Car (VLC), based on his Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize winning design. A decided departure from conventional auto architecture, Kuttner credited his successful weight reduction effort not to composites alone, but to a redesigned (and patented) aluminum suspension system small enough to be mounted in each wheel hub, replacing conventional McPherson struts, and an inexpensive chrome-moly steel spaceframe on which were mounted relatively low-tech and inexpensive glass-fiber reinforced polyester. According to Kuttner, the new suspension concept permitted simplification of the whole vehicle structure and triggered mass-decompounding effects that significantly reduced vehicle weight, enabling a battery electric version of the VLC to achieve a remarkable 350 mpge (149 km/le).
Kuttner’s point was not lost on auto OEMs, their tier suppliers and R&D operatives, who took the multimaterial banner and in 2013, forged a new auto design approach aimed at exchanging competition amongst aluminum, steel and composite materials suppliers for a more cooperative, collaborative approach.