SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers to boost 50K fiber capacity at Moses Lake to 9,000 tons

By 2015, the complex will host the world’s largest single carbon fiber manufacturing plant

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SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers (SGL ACF), a joint venture of carbon fiber manufacturer SGL Group (Wiesbaden, Germany) and automaker BMW Group (Munich, Germany), hosted corporate and government dignitaries on May 9 at its carbon fiber facility in Moses Lake, Wash., to announce a second expansion of the plant. The move will increase capacity at the site to 9,000 tons per annum by the end of 2015. HPC was at the event.

The facility opened in 2011, with two 1,500-ton 50K carbon fiber lines, to supply fiber for the Life Modules (passenger cells) in BMW’s i3 all-electric commuter car and i8 hybrid-electric sports car. An expansion, begun in 2013, will increase capacity this summer to 6,000 tons. A third building, for which officials broke ground on May 9, will add 3,000 tons of capacity. SGL ACF officials say that will make the Moses Lake plant the world’s largest single carbon fiber production facility.

The i Series Life Module supply chain is unique in both the automotive and composites industries in that it is a captive system — all aspects of production, from spinning of polyacrylonitrile precursor fiber through fabric preforming, are under the OEM’s control. Thus, any expansion at Moses Lake is seen as a strong sign of how much carbon fiber BMW intends to use in the coming years.

Anything but trivial, the expansion represents an additional investment of more than $200 million (USD) and sends a strong signal to the carbon fiber and automaking markets that BMW is seriously committed to carbon fiber use. BMW board member Dr. Klaus Draeger said at the groundbreaking that it would find use not only in the i3 and i8, but also other BMW vehicles, including the M Series, which has sported a carbon fiber roof for the past decade. As for other vehicles, BMW officials weren’t specific but Draeger dropped a large hint by pointing out that “between the i3 and the i8, there are many numbers.” Draeger also went to great lengths to thank SGL and Washington State for their cooperation and support, emphasizing in the process the “game-changing” nature of the i Series. “BMW is not just about visionary vehicle concepts and mobility services,” he claimed. “It represents a new dimension of sustainability and energy efficiency throughout the value chain. In other words, BMW ‘i’ is a revolution in the automotive industry.”

“In the course of only four years, SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers has managed to become the world’s largest carbon fiber production site,” observed SGL ACF’s CEO Andreas Wüllner. “The automotive industry will increasingly turn to CFRP [carbon fiber-reinforced plastic] because it is the material of the future.”

SGL ACF selected the Moses Lake site, in part, because access to relatively inexpensive hydroelectric power from dams on the nearby Columbia River allowed it to bypass natural gas use entirely, said Wüllner, providing significant cost and environmental benefits. In recognition, Washington’s governor Jay Inslee said the state was committing $150,000 in educational grants to help train new employees for the expanded plant and emphasized his desire to create and foster a business climate that helps companies like SGL and BMW earn a profit, increase employment and meet the energy and emissions challenges.

To the “pessimists and naysayers” who don’t believe humans need to act now to solve pollution and energy problems, Governor Inslee offered a challenge: “Come to Moses Lake and join us optimists who know we can beat this problem.”

Given that SGL ACF’s facilities cover only a small portion of the 60 acres it owns in Moses Lake and have access to abundant low-cost power, the question becomes, how many more expansions might be made in the coming years?