By on October 10, 2010

Producers of rolled steel and car manufacturers alike are casting a wary eye towards Japan. There, Toray Industries has developed technology, that, for the first time, allows carbon fiber to be used for mass produced auto bodies. According to The Nikkei [sub], Toray will start supplying Toyota and Fuji Heavy with carbon fiber for car bodies later this year.

Carbon fiber has one third of the weight of steel. Newton told us long ago, that reduced heft is the key to improved fuel efficiency. There used to be one problem: Carbon fiber was outrageously expensive, it did cost about 20 times the price of steel. Toray’s technology narrows the delta to about five times – as a start.

After a severe plunge, the price of steel is on the rise again. If more carbon fiber is used, the cost will come down, and the gap will narrow.

Still, at 5 times the cost, carbon fiber remains a luxury item. Toyota will use carbon fiber for the hood and roof of the Lexus LFA, a luxury sports car that will finally go in series production in December. Fuji Heavy will offer roofs made from carbon fiber as an optional item for its standard-class sports car. Not quite “mass production.” Nevertheless, it’s a start.

Rolled steel for cars is an important business for steelmakers. It also has a feature car makers like: built-in obsolescence, called rust. Rust inhibitors have prolonged the life of cars, and stopped them from already rusting in the catalogue. However, eventually, rust will get to a steel body, and it will conveniently fall apart.  A body made from carbon fiber theoretically can live forever. Whether car makers want to live with that idea is a totally different question.

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39 Comments on “And Now For The Carbon Fiber Age...”


  • avatar
    niky

    Carbon-fiber won’t last forever, either. Carbon-fiber resin degrades over time and with stress. The resin is vulnerable to UV damage and repeated stress shocks can cause delamination and failure… as seen with carbon-fiber mountain bikes and older carbon-fiber sportscars and racecars… (I believe the most spectacular failure is the Ferrari that broke in half at Goodwood).
    Steel, properly treated, can last for decades. And it’s easy to work if damaged, as compared to materials like carbon fiber and aluminum.

  • avatar
    shaker

    And, steel can be recycled. Carbon fiber is a “composite” material, that cannot be melted down into a reworkable, relatively pure substance like steel – recycling is impossible with present technology. Well, unless you want to put it in asphalt paving, I guess.

  • avatar
    Tstag

    This and the fact that BMW are also doing something similar with their mega city project signals the start of a new era in Automotive design and technology. It will usher in a new era of series hybrid cars and electric cars. In 5 years time I predict we will be seeing the first fully electric EV’s appearing and within a decade they will be the mainstream.
    The significance of what is happening can not be under estimated. A switch from steel and oil to carbon and greener electricity will hit stocks in these sectors hard. Some companies will be hit hard on the one hand a company like TATA will see it’s steel company begin to suffer from slowing demand for steel on the other hand SUV’s could once again become all the range as running costs start to drop so the likes of Land Rover start to benefit.
    Yes it is the dawn of a new age.

    • 0 avatar
      martin schwoerer

      Exactly. And here are some more predictions from me.
      Electric motors last much longer than ICE ones do. There’ll be much less added-value from the car makers.
      Electronic sensors will prevent the majority of fender-benders. Much less requirement to get a new car every five or so years.
      Carbon-fiber cars will have mostly have steel or plastic bumpers and crush zones. The protective cage around the car’s passengers will be made of CF. Such cars will be safer and will be able to last for decades.
      Batteries will be the major recycleable.

    • 0 avatar
      carve

      This’ll have a nice positive feedback cycle, too.  Carbon fiber might be expensive…but so are batteries and the magnets in motors.  A lighter car means smaller, lighter, cheaper batteries and motors, which further lightens the car, and gets you a lighter, cheaper, more efficient car.

      Cars are built with steel because it’s cheap, and the power to move it has traditionally been cheap.  Cars are designed around cheap energy.  It’s like out houses, also being dependent on cheap energy (incandescent bulbs that waste 90% of the power, poorly insulated, etc.).  Alternative energy sources don’t make much sense until the cars or houses are designed in such a way so that they require less energy.

  • avatar
    johnthacker

    Whether car makers want to live with that idea or not is immaterial if they’re forced to do so via competition. As you point out, Bertel, supposedly liking built-in obsolescence didn’t stop manufacturers from adopting rust inhibitors.  Why would this be different?

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    I thought that the longevity of carbon fiber has been aided by the paint and other protection layers.
    In fact, the composite used on the soon (hopefully) to be flown 7E7 has been protected like this.
    And where else can you get more direct sun that at 35,000 feet?

    I think this should have been done long ago to reduce the weight of cars.

    And being from Chicago, where they have more salt on the roads than snow, I always pined for composites being a way to allow cars to live as long as their engines when cared for properly.

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    How have the Corvettes held up through the years.
    They were plastic/composite as I recall.
    I never was sure how much was used in the total car.
    Even Saturn had it going heavy for awhile.

  • avatar
    TrailerTrash

    What REALLY bothers me is the fact that yet another possible tech is coming from outside the US!
    My god!
    Where are our engineers these days?

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    If you are looking to shave weight from the vehicle, then carbon fiber panels are one way to do it.  Keep the acetone away from it and it will last long enough.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    The one time use aspect of carbon fiber composites is a big downside. The US alone scraps over ten million vehicles per year. The majority of that scrap is presently recycled into new steel and aluminum.
    Imagine the piles of garbage which would result if those vehicles were made primarily of carbon fiber composites. I suppose that Japan’s solution will be to simply burn the stuff like Japan does with the majority of its trash. http://www.newcolonist.com/osaka_waste.html
     

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      Imagine the piles of garbage which would result if those vehicles were made primarily of carbon fiber composites.
      This is not a problem. Landfill space in North America is plentiful and cheap – which is why I don’t recycle non-toxic items. Scrapping 10 million cars annually sounds scary, but back of the envelope calculations show it’s not.
      1) Assume each car (crushed) takes up a 2m x 2m x2m cube (or 8 m^3, which is a high assumption).
      2) That would require 80 million cubic meters of space, which is a cube 430m x 430m x 430m.
      3) Or, if you only want to dig 100m deep, a ‘box’ 900m x 900m x 100m.
      4) So, current landfill requirements are (less than) a square kilometer of crushed cars 100m deep annually.
      5) Therefore, a 10km x 10km square (100m deep) could hold 100 years of scrapped, crushed cars.
      6) And, there are plenty of such parcels available in rural, red states that dislike the environment. Or in corrupt 3rd world nations that we can bribe to take our trash.
      QED. Problem solved.
       

  • avatar
    twotone

    Will minor body panel fender benders be repairable or will entire panels need to be replaced?

    I believe the MB SLR McLaren is essentially a carbon fiber woven car and any damage is extreemly expensive to repair. As this technology trickles down and becomes more affordable, computerized carbon fiber weaving machines will be able to create some very interesting shapes. Software driven weaving machines will not have the up-front tooling cost that needs to be amortize over 10,000 units. One-offs will be relatively affordable.

    Twotone
     

    • 0 avatar
      M 1

      While something like the Benz SLR may spec custom weaves, there are hundreds of standard off-the-shelf weaves available with well-understood properties (and the weave is EVERYTHING when it comes to CF). Go hit the McMaster-Carr online catalog and check out all the CF options.
       
      Working with CF starts out a lot like fiberglass, really. You cut the material, put it on or into the mold, then apply epoxy. But that’s where the similarity ends. You then have to vacuum-bag it, then bake it in a kiln to set the epoxy. In mass-production terms those are time-consuming and manual-labor phases that add a lot of expense and create unavoidable quality issues.
       
      There is a whole universe of other composite options available that are easier to automate and work just as well as CF for typical auto needs.

  • avatar
    Darth Lefty

    Lots of people are working very hard on carbon fiber recycling…

  • avatar
    LennyZ

    Military aircraft have been using composites, carbon fiver , Kevlar, fiberglass, for decades.  The 7E7  only differs in the amount of carbon fiber composites used.   Commercial aircraft have composite control surfaces and tails.  Cost is what has kept composites out of cars.  I’ve worked with composites for over 30 years and have known of their benefits.  Composites, if properly coated with paint or protective coatings, can last for decades.

  • avatar
    saponetta

    Until the trickle down to every type and class of car the carbon fiber will be a pain for repair.  Even now aluminum cars like the a8 or nsx are basically done if they have a significant hit.  You have to cut out and re weld in large sections of the car. There are very few shops in the counrty capable of doing this properly. I’ve seen deer strikes on a8′s that cost over 40k in repairs!

    • 0 avatar

      I wonder if there is a way to modularize the structural elements down to things like spars, shells, pans & bulkheads, so that a compromised part may just be un-bolted from the main assembly with a new one just swapped in?
       
      Ex: Instead of 1 giant monocoque for the passenger cell, what if there was just a floorpan, a firewall bulkhead, a b-pillar hoop/bulkhead and a rear seatback/trunk bulkhead, to which the a & c pillars, floor-pan, floor pan side spars & roof shell would be bolted?
       
      -Or would all those bolts & gusset-plates negate the weight-savings of CF?

  • avatar
    niky

    In the aircraft industry, the sheer cost of each aircraft makes composites worthwhile. And yes, paint does help.
     
    But CF frames on automobiles will be subject to ding, scrapes and scratches, which damages and compromises resin. And unlike aircraft, cars don’t get stripped down every few months for inspection.
     
    Of course, CF has been used in high-end sportscars and racecars successfully for years… but these are high-end products where costly repairs are a given. For cars that we expect to be cheap to maintain, CF body repair will definitely be an issue. (A8 repair at 40k? How time flies. I remember when a fender-bender on Jags cost 20k in aluminum subframe replacement…)
     
    It’s possible CF body panels will work. Easy to replace, and the stiffness of CF for its weight means that dings won’t be as big an issue… but we already have plastic panels for that. I’m sure automobile manufacturers will soon find ways to make a long-lasting resin with self-healing properties that won’t go brittle over 300,000 miles… and find ways to make it cheap enough to compete with steel… or at least aluminum… but seeing as how they still can’t make aluminum car frames cheaper (even after decades of using it, and even though most engines are all aluminum now), I’m not holding my breath waiting.

    • 0 avatar
      carve

      18-wheelers have had aluminum frames and bodies for ages, and they’re not that expensive (for their size)

    • 0 avatar
      niky

      Economies of size and scale. Also, different methods of construction. Trucks are mostly ladder-frame, for the weight carrying capacity. Cars are unibody, for lightness. An aluminum unibody is much more expensive to manufacture than a steel body.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    Holy guacamole.
     
    CF is recyclable, and has been for a while. Go to recycledcarbonfibre.com, or use that wacky ‘google’ thing and learn something.
     
    As to UV breakdown, any moderately cared for ‘Vette ain’t de-lamming and that’s using 50 year old tech and materials. Is anyone really so ill-informed as to toss this Palin-esque McGuffin into the mix? Really?
     
    The mere suggestion that anyone would believe such thoroughly disproved nonsense makes me fear for this country. What’s next? “Easter Bunny Sighted”?

  • avatar
    niky

    A Corvette is fiberglass, not carbon-fiber. And fiberglass can be repaired fairly easily with a slathering of new resin and glass-fiber. CF cannot.
     
    Unrepairable damage in bike frames is not a product of a fevered imagination. It’s actually happening. Not to say that CF is very fragile… far from it… but it’s a worry for CF cars that will see real world conditions and won’t be owned by millionaires and racing teams. A bent steel frame can be straightened out. A cracked CF frame must be replaced.

  • avatar

    Good thing this website isn’t called Truth About Composites.
    Before anyone starts fabricating “facts” regarding composites in general and carbon fiber in particular, please do a just a little research.
    Carbon fiber is recyclable and is being recycled right now (today) by several companies, many of which are here in the U.S. (http://www.compositesworld.com/articles/carbon-fiber-reclamation-going-commercial)
    Carbon fiber-based composites are repairable; otherwise, Boeing would not have used carbon fiber composites on 50% of the structural airframe of the forthcoming 787 Dreamliner. (http://www.compositesworld.com/articles/in-situ-composite-repair-builds-on-basics)
    Carbon fiber composites, when properly protected, will last decades, and are expected to do so on the 787.
    Newer Corvettes use some carbon fiber composites, but older corvettes use fiberglass composites and have done so for years without problem. (http://www.compositesworld.com/articles/corvette39s-carbon-hood-creates-shock-and-awe)
    All Formula 1 racecars use cockpits made entirely of carbon fiber composites and they provide excellent driver protection in case of a crash. (http://www.compositesworld.com/articles/formula-1-team-accelerates-design-to-track-speed)
    Re the lament that carbon fiber ain’t made here: manufacturing carbon fiber requires a specialized precursor (acronym PAN) that is not easily made, thus supply of carbon fiber is somewhat limited. The precursor has a history with the Japanese, thus they lead in carbon fiber manufacturing. (http://www.compositesworld.com/articles/the-making-of-carbon-fiber)
    Carbon fiber is made in the U.S., and carbon fiber for the forthcoming BMW Megacity Vehicle will be made by SGL in Washington State. (http://www.compositesworld.com/news/sgl-automotive-carbon-fibers-breaks-ground-on-washington-facility)

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      Thanks for the links sloaner, I’m the old school bastard that wants the class to do their own work, or I believe it isn’t really that important to them.
       
      But that’s just me. I know most of the effen millenials need it all handed to them on a plate. With utensils, instructions, and a nanny to stuff it in the hole.
       
      I’m saddend that there were comments that indicated there was some massive difference between glasfibre and carbonfibre – WTF happened to inquiring minds? The fiber is the differentiating point, and if they don’t have a vague clue about how stranding and epoxies work why do they have the ‘nads to post?
       
      The decline of Western Civilization…
       
       
       

    • 0 avatar
      niky

      “Repairable” can be seen in two ways. In one way, cosmetic damage and tearing on surface panels can be repaired in the same manner one repairs fiberglass. But for structural damage and to ensure integrity, the part has to be taken back to the manufacturer for rebuilding and curing.
       
      Forgive me for being doubtful when replacement CF parts cost several times as much as a steel panel.

    • 0 avatar
      porschespeed

      niky,
       
      Yes, gunchop glass if a different and, damn skippy, way cheaper than doing the same piece in CF. Mainly driven by the fact that my dog can do gun-glass in his sleep, while you need to have a human who (barely) made it outta highschool to do CF.
       
      Fiber orientation, and layup is RTFM tech and has been for ten years. ANYBODY with a decent laptop from Wallyworld and some ‘borrowed’ software can do 90% of F1 FEA.


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