DETROIT (Aug. 4, 12:15 p.m. ET) — Expecting a surge in automakers' demand for carbon fiber, suppliers are gearing up to cut costs and produce the high volumes that the industry will need.
In July, 14 companies announced a consortium with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop a carbon fiber that might cost as little as $5 to $7 a pound — down from $15 to $20 a pound today.
Oak Ridge is building a $35 million pilot plant that will produce up to 25 tons of carbon fiber a year. The partners will use the plant to test new raw materials.
Participants include Dow Chemical Co., 3M Co., Faurecia, United Technologies Corp. and others.
Meanwhile, BMW AG, Daimler AG and Automobili Lamborghini SpA each have formed joint ventures to develop and produce carbon fiber, which is several times stronger than steel.
The market is heating up because carbon fiber has become cheap enough to be used in luxury cars, not just exotic sports cars.
Carbon fiber is made from extremely thin strands of carbon thread twisted together and woven into a fabric. It's expensive stuff because the raw polymer thread is made from costly petrochemicals, its conversion into fabric is energy-intensive, and the production of parts is time-consuming.
But suppliers are starting to solve these problems one by one, and the Oak Ridge consortium could produce a breakthrough. To cut the cost of carbon fiber, the consortium will test a number of cheaper raw materials.
One of the more promising materials is lignin, a cheap byproduct of the conversion of wood pulp into paper.
Raymond Boeman, Oak Ridge's program director of energy partnerships, says lignin might replace petroleum-based polymers used to make carbon fiber.
A full version of this story appears on www.autonews.com.