Carbon fiber suppliers set foundations for production-auto supply chains

Three carbon fiber suppliers have embarked on programs designed to promote efficient processing of carbon-composite components — two using resin transfer molding (RTM) — for future production automobiles.

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Vehicle lightweighting with carbon composites appears to be gaining considerable traction. Three carbon fiber suppliers have embarked on programs designed to promote efficient processing of carbon-composite components — two using resin transfer molding (RTM) — for future production automobiles.

SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers, the recently launched carbon fiber manufacturing joint venture of SGL Group (Wiesbaden, Germany) and BMW Group (Munich, Germany), announced on April 6 that they had secured a 60-acre site (with an option for 60 more acres) in Moses Lake, Wash., for a carbon fiber plant. Selected, in part, for its proximity to clean, cost-competitive hydropower, the site will support two carbon fiber production lines during its initial $100 million (USD) development phase. The plant’s annual capacity will total 3,000 metric tonnes (6.61 million lb) of 50K carbon fiber tow. The fiber will be used exclusively for BMW Group’s Megacity electric-powered urban commuter car, scheduled for launch in 2015 under a BMW sub-brand. The Moses Lake lines will process polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor produced by a joint venture between SGL Group and Mitsubishi Rayon Co. Ltd. (MRC, Otake, Japan). The resulting tow will be woven into fabrics at a second joint-venture site in Wackersdorf, Germany. The fabrics will reinforce resin transfer molded composites at the BMW plant in Landshut, Germany. Finished parts will ship to a Megacity assembly line in Leipzig, Germany. Two officials who head the joint venture sat down with CT staff at the recent JEC Composites Show and provided additional details about the new plant and the RTM process that was developed for the Megacity program (see JEC report link at right).

A similar joint venture was announced on April 28 by carbon fiber manufacturer Toray Industries Inc. (Tokyo, Japan) and automaker Daimler AG (Stuttgart, Germany). The two have signed a joint development agreement to mold automobile parts made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) using Toray-developed High Cycle Resin Transfer Molding. Under the agreement, Toray, in addition to developing optimal CFRP materials, will handle design and molding processes, while Daimler develops technologies for joining the parts. By bringing together their respective technologies, the companies expect to develop a part production method with a very short molding cycle. The companies aim to adopt produced parts in Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz SL model within the next three years.

Toray has identified automotive composites as one of its top priorities, as evidenced by its establishment of the Automotive Center (AMC) and the Advanced Composite Center (ACC) in June 2008 and April 2009, respectively. These centers are the core of the company’s A&A (Automotive & Aircraft) Center in Nagoya, Japan. Daimler, meanwhile, has set a target of reducing body-in-white weight by as much as 10 percent for all Mercedes-Benz models.

Meanwhile, Zoltek Companies Inc. (St. Louis, Mo.) announced April 12 the formation of a new subsidiary, Zoltek Automotive Inc., to speed development of volume automotive applications for large-tow carbon fiber. More than a dozen Zoltek engineers and technicians slated to staff the new St. Louis-based company will be joined by two highly regarded experts in automotive composite applications, David Stewart and Martin O’Connor (see “People Briefs,” at right). Zsolt Rumy, Zoltek’s chairman and CEO, noted, “While Zoltek has been active in developing automotive applications for carbon fibers for many years, our objective is to make the adaptation of carbon fiber technology and processes easy and efficient by developing new production methods that will enable customers to fabricate cost-effective carbon fiber intermediate products.”

Zoltek Automotive’s strategy and methods, says Rumy, will vary with the need, providing automakers and their top-tier suppliers, first, with a reliable fiber supply at predictable costs and, second, process technology, design and analysis, testing and part fabrication. “Zoltek Automotive will provide a 360° view of what needs to be done at every step of the way,” he maintains, “either by itself or by partnering with other like-minded partner companies.”