And Now For The Carbon Fiber Age

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt
and now for the carbon fiber age

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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  • Niky Niky on Oct 11, 2010

    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.

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    • Niky Niky on Oct 11, 2010

      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.

  • Porschespeed Porschespeed on Oct 11, 2010

    Holy guacamole. CF is recyclable, and has been for a while. Go to, 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"?

  • Niky Niky on Oct 11, 2010

    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.

  • Sloaner Sloaner on Oct 12, 2010

    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. ( 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. ( 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. ( All Formula 1 racecars use cockpits made entirely of carbon fiber composites and they provide excellent driver protection in case of a crash. ( 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. ( 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. (

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    • Porschespeed Porschespeed on Oct 16, 2010

      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.