By on November 7, 2010

Except for a lot of green talk, my German compatriots are not known for enthusiastically embracing the EV idea. Japan, even China is way ahead of them. Despite high gasoline costs (taxes, taxes), even hybrids are everything but runaway successes in the Fatherland. If Germans want to save, they buy a Diesel, or take the train. But even the train isn’t the bargain it used to be. One car company bets big on Electric Vehicles. So big, that they built a whole new factory for them. You won’t believe who.

It’s BMW. With Chancellor Merkel in attendance, BMW started construction of a factory only for EVs. The plant is outside of Leipzig, and looks “like a stranded UFO,” as Die Welt reports. In 2013, the factory will churn out BMW’s EVs that currently go by the working title “Megacity Vehicle.” Instead of putting a battery and electric motors into a (more or less) existing vehicle, BMW will build a whole new vehicle around battery and electric motors. Or so they say.

Here is the big EV conundrum: The car has to lug a heavy battery around. Weight is the enemy of range. The bigger the battery, the bigger the weight. Can’t win. So BMW makes the car itself as light as possible. Instead of heavy steel, even instead of light aluminum, there will be carbon fiber. “Less weight, more range” taught CEO Reithofer the assembled press and luminaries, just in case they had slept during Newton. So get ready for a future that replaces carbon dioxide with carbon fiber.

BMW started a joint venture with SGL Carbon. They are building a factory in Washington State that will mass produce carbon fiber in an environmentally-friendly fashion. “When we make carbon fiber in our state, no harmful substances will be emitted into the air,” bragged Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire, who was also in attendance. Even the power to make the fiber is green: Hydroelectric power, there is one plus to all that rain in the Northwest.

Still, BMW has to deal with the usual problems that plague EVs. First, there is the nasty price. It won’t be cheap. But BMW customers usually don’t rely on social security. Then, there is range. Klaus Draeger, head of R& at BMW says it will go for 200km (124 miles) – no wonder it’s for megacities. Its range is barely enough for the M25, London’s ring road. In a true megacity, like Beijing, it will run out of juice before circumnavigating the 140mile long 6th Ring Road.

Then, there is a huge gamble: Currently, carbon fiber is obscenely expensive. Two to three times as dear as aluminum. Nearly 30 times as expensive than steel – if you go by weight. BMW is betting that the price of carbon fiber (and hopefully that of batteries) will come way down before they launch their Megacity Vehicle in 2013. If not, it will be a megadud.

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11 Comments on “Carbon Fiber Vs. Carbon Dioxide: German Car Maker Risks A Big Gamble...”

  • avatar

    So, what are they getting? Megapublicfunding? Megasubsidies? Can’t believe the Qandts are taking their own megabucks out of their own megawallet due to their megagreenbleedinghearts…
    Good megamorning Bertel!

  • avatar

    I am under the impression BMW and SGL have developed a new kind of low cost CF and that that’s where the expectation of a lower cost is coming from.

  • avatar
    John Fritz

    Except for a lot of green talk, my German compatriots are not known for enthusiastically embracing the EV idea.
    Intelligente Kerle.

  • avatar

    Even if carbon fiber is “zu teuer” couldn’t the return on investment be equalized for an EV buyer with increased range?

  • avatar

    Let’s wait what BMW is going to find out.
    Weight certainly is an issue with cars. But imagine an ultralight all-fiber car with an up-to-date ICE engine! Simply drop the battery stuff and off you go… No need to worry about range, consumption, just speed traps are your enemy. Well, and the prices for spare parts and repair, of course.

  • avatar
    Tree Trunk

    They should be able to offset some of the cost with the Carbon Fiber with a smaller EV system due to lower weight so overall cost should be OK.
    Plus if the price of Carbon Fiber comes down they can us it in their other models bringing down cost and improve mpg or performance

  • avatar

    Amazing.  This is a GREEN car.  The carbon fiber will start out as precursor fiber produced in Japan.  Then shipped all the way to Moses Lake, WA.  Made into carbon fiber, then shipped all the way to Germany and made into a carbon fabric.  Then shipped to BMW and made into a preform and molded into a part, then shipped to the plant for assembly.  How is that green?

    • 0 avatar
      Tree Trunk

      Shipping a ton of freight 10000miles on a train would us roughly 25 gallons of fuel, much less on a ship, more on a cargo plane.
      If the car build goes from 20 mpg to 40 mpg any added shipping would made up in the first couple of tanks it goes through.

  • avatar

    Battery prices aren’t coming down.  I don’t know why no one pointed this out before, because it’s so darned obvious:
    The lithium ion cells that are the basic building block of all EV battery packs are already a commodity item.  There aren’t new economies of scale or refinements of production that are going to bring cost down significantly.  And these basic cells are overwhelmingly the majority of the cost of the battery pack.

    EV batteries are not going to get significantly less expensive.

    And let me make a final point: carbon fiber is similar to lithium ion. It’s a mature technology. It’s not going to get cheap.

    • 0 avatar

      Just because Lithium Ion batteries are a commodity item for portable devices such as laptop computers doesn’t mean that manufacturing has been developed on the scale required to meet even 1% of the car market.
      A similar scale issue comes up on the path of carbon fiber from aerospace, defense, and high-end sporting goods to cars.  Automobiles provide a scale of manufacturing quantity available nowhere else but in buildings.
      While neither carbon fiber or batteries will ever have falling costs on the scale of memory chips or flat-panel TVs, significant progress is still likely.

  • avatar

    The only reason cars are made of steel is because it’s strong and cheap.  It’s heavy as hell though, but that was OK because the energy to move it around was dirt cheap.  Our paradigm is based on cheap energy.  Now that the power source (batteries) are expensive, it makes sense into putting the money into ways to dramatically reduce the size of that component- namely, needing less of it.

    It’s the same as alternative energy for homes.  It just isn’t cost effective because our homes were designed around cheap energy, so require a lot of it.  Instead of replacing that cheap energy with expensive renewables, it makes a lot more sense to limit your demand first, then go to the alternative energy.  This is done by lighting that requires 1/8 the power, cooling that is 2-3x as efficient, limiting “vampire” loads, air-drying clothes, etc.

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