Automotive carbon fiber: Seeking moderation
If you’re a consumer or a supplier of carbon fiber, CompositesWorld’s annual Carbon Fiber conference, held Dec. 9-12, 2013 in Knoxville, Tenn., was the place to be if you’re looking to get a feel for where and how this important fiber is being applied. Going into any Carbon Fiber conference, there is some anticipation (for me, at least) surrounding a particular program or end market, depending on how carbon fiber is trending. Interest over the years has been driven by carbon fiber use in the Boeing 787, the Airbus A350 XWB, wind blades and, this year, automotive. Indeed, the trend lines for carbon fiber use in automotive all appear to be pointing up, and there is the Holy Grail — the promise of massive, global use of carbon fiber in production cars and trucks.
The reality, however, is probably more temperate.
Chris Red, who heads Composites Forecasts and Consulting LLC (Mesa, Ariz.), identified for attendees 104 car models that feature OEM-specified carbon fiber composites to some degree. In his view, “We can’t get into mid- and high-volume model production scenarios within the next 10 years,” due to high price and processing issues. Red added that he believes that mid- to full-size luxury cars, luxury sports cars and some SUVs and CUVs hold the most promise for carbon composites adoption right now. He concluded with this: Over the next 10 years, the global vehicle population is expected to consume more than 173 million lb/78.6 million kg of carbon fiber.
Patrick Blanchard, technical leader, Composites Group, at Ford Motor Co. Research & Advanced Engineering, addressed emerging CAFE standards and lightweighting efforts at the carmaker. He noted powertrain advances involving hybrid and electric technologies alone will allow a company like Ford to meet CAFE targets; reducing vehicle weight will extend the range of high-efficiency cars, but weight elimination is not necessary to increase efficiency.
Ford, Blanchard noted, is looking at aluminum and lightweight steel to help trim mass. These “legacy” materials fit best with Ford’s manufacturing systems, which, of course, favor metals. In addition, he noted that carbon fiber needs scalability, better design and CAE tools, robust repair technologies, compatibility with vehicle painting processes and adequate supply. Regarding supply, he said with tongue in cheek that if each of the 15 million vehicles produced annually used a mere 10 kg of carbon fiber, 150,000 metric tonnes of carbon fiber would be required by the auto industry alone. Current supply for all applications is about 100,000 metric tonnes. Blanchard did say that composites use in automotive has a future, particularly in multimaterial applications, but he made it clear that carbon fiber use at Ford is not a forgone conclusion.
It’s hard not to be a little confounded by the automotive industry. With carmakers like BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota and, to a degree, GM, working hard to develop carbon fiber auto structures, and with carmakers like Ford declaring more skepticism, we can only assume that we’re in the midst of major transformation as the market sorts out its carbon fiber options. It’s likely that we’ll need a few more years of evolution to have a better understanding of where automotive carbon fiber is headed. In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to put the Holy Grail back on the shelf and, as Aristotle counseled, seek moderation.
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