Price keeping carbon fiber from mass adoption

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BMW AG BMW AG developed its own in-house production for carbon fiber for its i3 and i8 electric cars.
ATLANTA — Today, carbon fibers in automotive are still expensive and exotic, known mainly for use race cars, but the composites industry continues to seek the holy grail of carbon fiber parts in mass-market cars — and they’re getting closer.

Carbon fiber reinforced parts are light, strong and load-bearing, structural parts. Cutting weight from cars is important, as automakers push to hit Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards of more than 54.5 mpg by 2025. They’re looking at lightweight steels, aluminum — which made big news this year as the body material for the next Ford F-150 pickup truck — and carbon fiber.

The problem boils down to high cost and slow processing times, according to industry officials at JEC Americas, a composites trade show held in mid-May in Atlanta.

According to a sampling of people at the trade show, carbon fiber for automotive costs $10 to $12 a pound, compared to less than a buck for steel. That’s more than half the $35 price a decade ago, but to see more widespread adoption, it needs to get down to about $5 or $6 a pound, they said.

Even so, automakers are taking notice, faced with unrelenting fuel-economy standards.

Much of the activity is happening in Europe. BMW AG’s new electric car, the i3, uses carbon fiber for its body panels and frame — marking the most extensive use of carbon fiber in a “volume production” car so far.

The Lamborghini Urus made waves for extensive use of carbon fibers. And the Alfa Romeo 4C sports car uses a one-piece monocoque chassis made of carbon fiber composites.

Will we see major carbon fiber parts on mass-market car, say a Chevy Malibu, any time soon? Not likely. But Detroit is moving ahead, as well. The redesigned 2014 Corvette has a standard carbon fiber hood and roof. The Dodge Viper began using a carbon fiber hood, roof and trunk lid in 2012.

These are not mainstream cars. But if every automaker had a high-volume car using the advanced materials, the current carbon fiber industry could not make enough material, experts said at JEC Americas.

“The big question they’re asking is, can the composites industry develop the infrastructure and capacity?” said Sanjay Mazumdar, CEO of market research and consulting firm Lucintel, who worked at GM on lightweighting projects.

Automotive composites should grow at about 6 percent a year through 2018, he said in a presentation at the Atlanta conference. Glass-fiber reinforced composites account for 92 percent of total plastics composites in cars today. Natural fibers are 7.6 percent. Carbon fiber? A miniscule 0.6 percent.

Carbon fiber has a good future, Mazumdar said, since a car’s structural components are about 30 percent of the total vehicle, by weight. Likely applications for carbon fiber are the chassis, hood and trunk lid.

“But the cost of carbon fiber is eight times that of steel,” he said.

To ensure future supply, automakers and some major suppliers are forging appliances with glass-fiber manufacturers. BMW created a joint venture with Germany-based SGL Group for a carbon fiber plant in Moses Lake, Wash. In May, BMW and SGL announced they are investing $200 million to triple production at the factory, to 9,000 tons of fiber by early 2015. That would make Moses Lake the world’s largest carbon fiber plant, the companies claim.

Ford Motor Co. is collaborating with Dow Chemical Co. on a research project on faster ways to bring carbon fiber to market.

GM formed a partnership with Teijin Ltd. of Japan to develop carbon composites for high-volume cars. Teijin has opened up a technical center in Detroit.

Other deals show the jockeying for position in a carbon-fiber future. Toray Industries Inc. took a minority stake in Plasan Carbon Composites Inc., which makes the carbon fiber parts for the Viper and other cars. Toray also bought Zoltek Cos. Inc., a St. Louis carbon fiber producer, for $584 million in a deal that closed earlier this year. Magna Exteriors now makes carbon fiber SMC at its plant in Grabill, Ind.

The Grabill plant is set to be sold to fellow composites maker Continental Structural Plastics, which is also moving into carbon fiber.

“There’s a lot going on around the supply chain,” said Claire Michel, communications manager at Composites House, Cytec’s research and development center in Derbyshire, England. “Everybody is trying to secure their supply base because there is not enough carbon fiber. One way of securing it is through acquisitions, partnerships and strong alliances.”

Cytec does not have any exclusive agreements in automotive, she said.

Cytec has expanded its carbon fiber plant in Piedmont, S.C., which makes polyacrylonitril-based (PAN) carbon fibers, sold mainly for commercial and military aerospace. Cars and trucks are a much bigger pie.

“Automotive wants the solution. You’ve got to come to them with a finished product,” said Russ Pancio, business development manager for Sigmatex Ltd., which displayed its woven carbon fiber mats at JEC Americas. The mats are later turned into prepregs.

Pancio, who works out of the U.K.-based company’s U.S. office in Benicia, Calif., said the carbon fiber industry will need to get bigger to meet future demand from mainstream vehicles. “The plants have to be able to handle it,” he said.

Push for lower costs

Automobili Lambourghini SpA The Lamborghini Urus concept was designed for carbon fiber production.

Carbon fiber is made by an energy-intensive process of carbonization. Industry think-tanks have been trying to find cheaper alternatives to PAN-based fibers. In Europe, a government/industry partnership launched last fall, called NewsPEc , is working to use polyethylene as a precursor.

At JEC Americas, two officials of Automobili Lamborghini SpA, explained the effort. The Italian luxury car builder has a long history of automotive composites, starting with a prototype composite monocoque in 1983, said Luciano De Oto, chief of the Advanced Composites Division. Looking forward, Lamborghini will almost completely replace pre-preg methods with its own advanced technologies, such as forged composites, thermoplastic composites and nano-composites, he said.

Lamborghini is actively involved in NewsPEc, a consortium of 13 partner companies from seven countries in the European Union. Carbon fiber is the lightest material available for cars, even lighter than aluminum, but the expense is holding it back, said Marco De Luca project manager of the car maker’s Advanced Composite Research Center. He also heads aerodynamics for race car programs.

“High-strength steel will reach maturity in 15 years’ time. Aluminum is growing but carbon fiber has lots of growth potential,” De Luca said in speech at JEC America’s invitation-only Automotive Circle event on May 14.

The goal of NewsPEc is to reduce dependence on petroleum-based plastics. The group says PE precursors can be derived from biopolymers from ethanol, synthetic oil-based polymers and recycled plastics.

PE-based carbon fiber can reduce the price by 30 percent, compared to PAN, De Luca said. That includes lower energy needed to produce the fiber, he said.

The goal is to set up a pilot plant in Germany. The consortium is looking at automotive parts such as structural components, body panels, interiors and brake rotors and pads. Other target areas are aerospace, wind turbines and pipelines and pressure vessels for oil and gas.

In 2016, Lamborghini hopes to build a monocoque chassis from PE-based fibers, followed a year later by body panels. They will undergo testing.

In the United States, Oak Ridge National Laboratory has led development of reducing costs of carbon fibers. ORNL makes carbon fibers at a Carbon Fiber Technology facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

ORNL continues to study lignin, derived from wood, said Cliff Eberle, technology development manager for the Carbon and Composites Group. Lignin can vary widely depending on the species of tree, the climate and the season, so researchers are looking for lignin with specific molecular structures.

“We are still working to generate structural properties. As far as we know, no one has been able to make a competent structural fiber from lignin,” Eberle said.

ORNL also has looked at variations of PAN. They also have studied polyolefins, working with Dow.

Eberle said Oak Ridge officials consider carbon fiber to be an important national security issue, and lightweight cars are a central part. “Our biggest target is widespread application in mainstream vehicles, making a significant dent in our petroleum” consumption, he said.

“The reason we work on carbon fibers is to change the nation’s energy equations,” he said.

New technology cuts cycle time

Relatively slow manufacturing is the other part of the roadblock for carbon fiber — as well as for traditional glass-fiber reinforced composites. To get into high-volume automotive, composites has to move past a craft-type of handwork to more-automated mass production, industry officials say.

Mazumdar, the Lucintel market researcher, said cycle times for composite part production are now approaching one two minutes. It used to be an hour or more.

“They’re making good progress,” he said.

Plasan, based in Bennington, Vt., has developed a rapid-curing molding process that is much faster than a traditional autoclave, working with Globe Machine Co. of Tacoma, Wash.

On the Chevy Spark electric car, the battery enclosure is made of glass-fiber reinforced vinyl ester prepreg, made with a computerized layup pattern, automatic die cutting and laser alignment of patterns. The enclosure was developed by Continental Structural Plastics Inc. in Troy, Mich., Cytec Industries Inc. of Woodland Park, N.J., and battery maker A123 Systems Inc. of Livonia, Mich., after three years of development with General Motors.

The Spark battery enclosure won the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Division award for the electrical systems category last fall.

At the JEC Americas show, Glade Gunther of Cytec said General Motors changed the material to go with a woven glass-reinforced prepreg for the enclosure, an important component since the lithium-ion battery pack is near the rear bumper on the small car, in a crash zone. The part also had to meet fire-resistance tests, drop testing, water-submersion and vibration/shock testing.

“It was a very urgent, tight timeline type of an application. They had originally designed it to be used as a magnesium part. They had all sorts of issues trying to make this complex geometry out of magnesium,” said Gunther, business development specialist for industrial materials in Cytec’s plant in Tulsa, Okla.

The compression molded part is 40 percent lighter that a metal enclosure, Cytec said.

Cytec and Continental Structural Plastics dramatically reduced cycle time. Cytec developed a rapid-cure vinyl ester resin system, MTM 23, for compression molding the battery enclosures. That material allows Continental Structural Plastics to mold the parts in less 10 minutes at a 150° Fahrenheit cure, but Cytec said MTM 23 could be rapid-cured in less than three minutes.

The process uses automation to make the enclosures, including a computerized layup pattern, automatic die cutting and laser alignment of patterns.