Monday, May 26, 2008

Carbon fiber: the key to better mileage?

A group of Japanese companies which control 70% of the global carbon fiber market want to increase the usage of carbon fiber in automobiles. Carbon fiber can deliver the same strength as steel at just one fifth an equivalent amount of steel’s weight, but carbon fiber applications in automobiles currently account only for less than 1 percent of the carbon fiber production.

Traditionally carbon fiber has been reserved for more expensive cars such as the BMW M3 with its carbon fiber roof, and the NIssan GT-R with its carbon fiber engine underguard and radiator panel. But it may soon trickle down to more mass-production cars - Toyota displayed the Toyota 1/X Concept car at the 2007 Tokyo Motor Show last year. It uses a carbon fiber reinforced plastic body frame, has the same interior size as a Toyota Prius, but only weighs one third the weight.

Carbon fiber is expensive because of cost of materials, cost of manufacturing and time needed for manufacturing. It requires lots of energy to heat and treat the fibers, and molding the material takes hours. There is also a relatively high level of wastage. One of the companies - Teijin - intends to speed up the production process via a 10 minute molding process, but this looks like an eternity compared to sheet metal stamping which needs roughly only a second.

With rising gas prices, cutting down vehicle weight is one way to improve fuel economy. Together with gradually improved carbon fiber molding processes, may see more application of carbon fiber in cars.

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