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Is Carbon Fiber Going Mainstream? 152

Posted by samzenpus
from the build-it-better dept.
cartechboy (2660665) writes "To date, carbon fiber has been expensive and presents different production challenges than traditional steel and aluminum. But now it seems as if the advanced material is about to become truly mainstream--BMW has announced it plans to triple carbon fiber reinforced plastic output at its Moses Lake facility in Washington state. Currently, the SGL Group plant, a joint venture partner of BMW Group, has the production capacity for about 3,000 tons of carbon fiber per annum. Two productions lines are currently going with the output dedicated to BMW's i3 and i8 plug-in vehicles. SGL is already working on a third and fourth production line which would double production to 6,000 tons per year, but a fifth and sixth are on the way, set to triple capacity to 9,000 tons every year. This extra output won't be reserved exclusively for BMW's i range. Several future BMW models will make use of the lightweight material. Now the only question is how long before carbon fiber vehicle construction becomes as common as aluminum?"
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Is Carbon Fiber Going Mainstream?

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  • Yes (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Richy_T (111409) on Monday May 12, 2014 @01:14PM (#46980607) Homepage

    Yes

    • Take it out of the atmosphere, put it into electric cars.
    • Re:Yes (Score:4, Interesting)

      by catchblue22 (1004569) on Monday May 12, 2014 @02:04PM (#46981301) Homepage

      Once I learned about carbon fiber thermoplastics [fiberforge.com], I realized that carbon fiber would be amenable to mass production. The idea is that you lay down the fibers using robotic technology. Then you encase the fiber in a plastic resin that becomes soft at high temperatures. Now you have made a flat carbon fiber sheet similar to sheet steel. Finally you use a hot press that presses the sheet into nearly any shape desired...ie. car parts. This is similar to how we form steel into car body parts. This processes is highly suitable for mass production. So yes, carbon fiber is becoming mainstream.

      • by mattack2 (1165421)

        Why do you need the plastic? Is that just for ease of molding? Seems like it can't be recyclable this way.

        • by Richy_T (111409)

          Carbon fiber as used is a composite material. The carbon fiber itself provides strength but needs to be contained in a matrix. Usually this is a resin but in this case would be a plastic.

    • by ArhcAngel (247594)
      OH NO SIR! You will not break Betteridge's law of headlines. This is /. and that will not be tolerated.
  • Recycling (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 12, 2014 @01:16PM (#46980631)

    Carbon fiber is the least recyclable material ever.

    No doubt they will claim they are recycling it in some unholy process, but it would be far more environmentally friendly to produce the raw stock.

    Now steel and aluminum are highly recyclable. And cleanly too.

    • by wiggles (30088)

      So you have a choice - less energy use via lighter cars, or easily recyclable cars. Where is your particular environmental itch?

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Virtucon (127420)

        No cars. Just walk, bike or use public transportation. That's what all the policy makers want you to do anyway.

        • by beelsebob (529313)

          So you have a choice - less energy use (and hence less food consumption) via lighter bikes, or easily recyclable bikes. Where is your particular environmental itch?

        • No cars. Just walk, bike or use public transportation. That's what all the policy makers want you to do anyway.

          In America, cars are subsidized, while bike paths and public transportation get crumbs.

        • Not where I live. I wish my policy makers were pushing hard for more transit options.

        • I think using public transportation is an excellent idea for other people to do.

    • Re:Recycling (Score:5, Informative)

      by mlts (1038732) on Monday May 12, 2014 @01:38PM (#46980957)

      We went through this exact thing with bicycle frames about 10 years ago. CF is lighter and more rigid than aluminum, but if it gets a crack or gouge in it, the frame can't be mended... it has to be tossed, and the only real way to "recycle" CF is to toss it into a thermal depolymerization machine and "boil" the epoxy and CF (using lots of water and heat) back to crude oil.

      CF has its place, but on a vehicle where weight is less a limiting issue than on bicycles, it might be best off to stick with recyclable stuff like aluminum because of the volume of vehicles made. Aluminum can be recycled fairly easily... CF can't be used for much once it hits the scrapyard.

      • That, and CF shatters upon impact (dispersing the KE with it). If the unibody was made of the stuff, kiss the car goodbye; it's totaled!. OTOH if it's just the body panels, you replace them.

        • Not true - you an repair a carbon bike. Calfee will be happy to do it for you
          http://calfeedesign.com/repair... [calfeedesign.com]
      • ...CF is lighter and more rigid than aluminum, but if it gets a crack or gouge in it, the frame can't be mended... it has to be tossed...

        Aluminum bikes have problems too. Pure aluminum has zero fatigue limit [wikipedia.org], which means that it WILL eventually crack. Zero fatigue limit means that even the smallest stress on an aluminum frame will cause it to fatigue. If you knocked on an aluminum frame with your fingernail enough times in the same spot, it would eventually fail.

        • by fahrbot-bot (874524) on Monday May 12, 2014 @01:55PM (#46981187)

          If you knocked on an aluminum frame with your fingernail enough times in the same spot, it would eventually fail.

          Your manicures must be *really*difficult and expensive.

        • "f you knocked on an aluminum frame with your fingernail enough times in the same spot, it would eventually fail." In short, keep it away from Sheldon...
        • by Algae_94 (2017070)

          You're going a little over board on the fatigue issue with Aluminum. How many times do you think you'd have to tap that frame with your fingernail?

          If you are really worried about it, get a steel frame.

          • You're going a little over board on the fatigue issue with Aluminum. How many times do you think you'd have to tap that frame with your fingernail?

            If you are really worried about it, get a steel frame.

            Not really. Riding on city roads places constant stress on frames. The zero fatigue limit on aluminum bikes basically means that your bike frame has a limit on how much it can be ridden. Ride it enough and it will crack. I have personally seen two cracked aluminum frames.

            At the very least, I would never buy an aluminum frame unless I know that the frame is an aluminum alloy that has a non-zero fatigue limit. I would also never buy a used aluminum downhill bike.

            • by Algae_94 (2017070)

              You're going a little over board on the fatigue issue with Aluminum. How many times do you think you'd have to tap that frame with your fingernail?

              If you are really worried about it, get a steel frame.

              Not really. Riding on city roads places constant stress on frames. The zero fatigue limit on aluminum bikes basically means that your bike frame has a limit on how much it can be ridden. Ride it enough and it will crack. I have personally seen two cracked aluminum frames.

              At the very least, I would never buy an aluminum frame unless I know that the frame is an aluminum alloy that has a non-zero fatigue limit. I would also never buy a used aluminum downhill bike.

              I suppose I just don't ride enough to have a huge issue with this. I have 10 year old Aluminum frames that have not cracked. If I was out riding most days of the week an Aluminum frame might not last long enough, but I don't.

              Downhill bikes are a whole other ball of wax. It's not my style of riding at all, so I can't imagine myself buying one. My assumption is that even with a steel or titanium frame the amount of stresses involved in downhill drops could still get over the fatigue limit and lead to an e

        • by Carewolf (581105)

          Aluminum bikes have problems too. Pure aluminum has zero fatigue limit [wikipedia.org], which means that it WILL eventually crack. Zero fatigue limit means that even the smallest stress on an aluminum frame will cause it to fatigue. If you knocked on an aluminum frame with your fingernail enough times in the same spot, it would eventually fail.

          Which is why using aluminium for rims is a terrible good idea.

        • While it is true Aluminum doesn't have a fatigue limit, the breaking point depends on what the stresses are in the material. "will eventually crack" can translate to 20 minutes of riding, or 20 million years of riding. An aluminum frame can be made where its fatigue life well exceeds the practical life of the bicycle.

          If it takes 4.54 billion years of knocking the frame with your fingernail for the frame to fail, there really isn't a problem with it.

        • by mark_reh (2015546)

          Bike frames aren't made from pure aluminum. They are made from alloys. Almost nothing is made from pure aluminum, certainly nothing structural.

          My 1996 vintage Cannondale Super V1000 MTB is still going strong.

          Thousands of aluminum aircraft are still in the air after >30 years use.

          • by timeOday (582209)
            Counterpoint, I had one of these [google.com], and the down tube / head tube joint did crack, in fact it only lasted 3 or 4 years. I would imagine a lot has changed since then though. (Also, Canondale did replace it with a newer model, on warranty).
      • High temp burning should produce decent energy output without pollution. IF they don't use some goofy plastic it can be burned hot enough and well enough to not be a problem.

        Sometimes recycling is just not worth the effort.

      • by unimacs (597299)
        Tell that to this guy: http://applemanbicycles.com/re... [applemanbicycles.com]

        His business is custom built carbon fiber bikes but he got through the lean times by repairing CF frames. He still does it and he's not the only one.
      • " but if it gets a crack or gouge in it, the frame can't be mended... it has to be tossed"

        Calfree has been repairing CF frames and components for over a decade. I have no idea why you're claiming it's not repairable.

      • I wonder what mass of carbon had to be burned to create the aluminum? Not exactly sure how carbon fiber is made but it could come at a lower initial energy cost.

        • by jabuzz (182671)

          Potentially zero. Most aluminium is smelted using hydroelectric. There will most likely be carbon used in the mining of the ores etc. but the actual smelting, very little.

    • Re:Recycling (Score:5, Insightful)

      by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Monday May 12, 2014 @01:43PM (#46981017)

      Carbon fiber is the least recyclable material ever.

      The world is not running out of carbon. The amount of energy saved by building lighter vehicles dwarfs the amount saved through recycling.

      • yeah, but we are running out of places to just put trash
        • yeah, but we are running out of places to just put trash

          No we aren't [slate.com]. America has enough landfill space to last for centuries at current rates. The "landfill crisis" that was all the rage in the 1990s was made up by journalists and never had any connection to reality.

          • by fnj (64210)

            America has enough landfill space to last for centuries

            What will you do after centuries? No, not "you" personally, but what do you suggest to be done? I suggest coolsnowman was nothing but perfectly accurate when he said "we are running out of places to just put trash". It's just that the time scale doesn't happen to worry you.

            • What will you do after centuries?

              1. Open new landfills.
              2. Dig up the carbon fiber and incinerate it.
              3. Use 2314 technology to solve the problem.
              4. Calculate the percentage of landfill space likely to be occupied by carbon fiber, and realize that it is insignificant. Disposable diapers are a bigger problem.
              5. Improve human intelligence enough so that people realize CO2 emmissions, and debt from importing oil are REAL problems, and to make them worse to deal with some manufactured crisis about "landfill space" is pretty stupid.

      • The world is not running out of carbon.

        That doesn't mean you want to waste a lot of energy generating non-recyclable carbon fiber products that will fill up landfills.

        The amount of energy saved by building lighter vehicles dwarfs the amount saved through recycling.

        I'm guessing you aren't aware of the energy savings from recycling aluminum [wikipedia.org]. Recycling aluminum requires roughly 5% of the energy required to create it from bauxite. Furthermore you can recycle aluminum multiple times whereas you effectively cannot recycle carbon fiber at all. (technically it is possible but economically it is not) Much or even all of the fuel savings through l

        • by amorsen (7485)

          That doesn't mean you want to waste a lot of energy generating non-recyclable carbon fiber products that will fill up landfills.

          It only takes up space in landfills if you fail to incinerate it. You need a proper incineration plant to avoid generating toxic smoke, but that is rather old technology at this point, and you get useful heat out of the process.

          • by mark_reh (2015546)

            If you incinerate CF you put the carbon into the air.

            I think the nonrecyclability of CF is one of the things that makes it more attractive. CF locks that carbon away forever. Once its buried in the landfill I'm pretty sure no one is going to try to dig it up to burn it.

            • by amorsen (7485)

              People dig up lignite to burn it. Lots of it. A proper carbon fiber landfill would probably be a fairly decent coal mine, at least compared to the quite lousy ones left today.

      • "As mankind built more things out of unrecyclable carbon fiber, bigger and bigger landfills were needed to contain it, thus solving the problem once and for all!"

      • by Rinikusu (28164)

        Of course, by burying carbon fiber, aren't we also sequestering that carbon?

    • by amorsen (7485)

      It's carbon, surely it burns?

      I don't see a problem with turning coal into a useful product before it gets burned for electricity.

    • by mark_reh (2015546)

      In a sense, CF is the ultimate recycling of carbon. It starts as plastic (recycled?) fibers that get baked until there's nothing left but carbon. When the CF vehicle crashes or otherwise ends up being scrapped, all that carbon goes into the ground.

      What would be really great is if they could extract the carbon for CF from the CO and CO2 in the air. You'd drive around in it for a while then bury it in the ground.

    • by rtb61 (674572)

      Built for life or recyclable, one is sane the other the insanity of mass consumption. Far saner to build for a lifetimes use.

  • BMW... mainstream..?
    Anway, tripling a small number is still a small number. Whether the numbers are small is impossible to judge from the summary.. or the article.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B... [wikipedia.org]

    • BMW... mainstream..?

      Aren't they? I see them all over the place. They're certainly not some rare luxury car like a Rolls-Royce (*) or Ferrari.

      But it would be a nice change to the trend of cars getting ever heavier.

      (*) Well, except that they own Rolls Royce of course.

      • by cdrudge (68377)

        BMW... mainstream..?

        Aren't they? I see them all over the place.

        Depends on how you define mainstream. By the definition of belonging to or characteristic of a principal, dominant, or widely accepted group, probably not. They'd probably be considered more niche then mainstream since they only have about 2% of the US market with 300k vehicles sold in the US. And if you look at what BMW is manufacturing the carbon fiber for, the i3 and i8 electric vehicles, it's even a smaller niche with a total of 50k units

    • It might not be Ford's 15.6 million cars but 1.86 million car sales isn't exactly niche either. Perhaps your "for the 1%" mindset is a bit inaccurate. As to the comparison, piecing together information... 20% of world steel output goes to automobile manufacturing. World crude steel output for 2012 was 1548 Mt so I suppose that means about 309.6 megatons goes to cars. So relatively speaking 9000 tons isn't much of a dent, but it does sound like a significant step towards building manufacturer confidence
      • by fnj (64210)

        Perhaps your "for the 1%" mindset is a bit inaccurate.

        Perhaps. Shall we say "for the 10%"?

  • OK, so a pedal bicycle is a very low powered road vehicle, but the same equation applies. To achieve a better power to weight ratio, you can either increase power or decrease weight - and decreased weight has the added bonus of lower loads on suspension and tyres in fast corners.

    • Not sure if it applies to bikes, but with a car, unless you're generating a significant amount of downforce, you want a fair amount of weight on the tires during cornering. Especially on the control (steering) wheels.

      • Not really, cornering in a regular car (we are not talking race vehicles here) depends mostly on the coefficient of friction between the tires and road surface and the amount of body roll (suspension and weight). Decreasing the weight doesn't change the coefficient of friction but will decrease the amount of body roll so making things lighter will help out in cornering. If being light weight meant it would handle like crap then those tiny little Lotus Elises would probably be amongst the worst handling vehi
        • Not really, cornering in a regular car (we are not talking race vehicles here) depends mostly on the coefficient of friction between the tires and road surface and the amount of body roll (suspension and weight). Decreasing the weight doesn't change the coefficient of friction but will decrease the amount of body roll so making things lighter will help out in cornering.

          Decreasing the weight does decreases the coefficient of friction, as it lessens the amount of force that's pushing the tires against the pavement. That is, if I understand the Wiki article correctly when it states:

          The coefficient of friction (COF), often symbolized by the Greek letter , is a dimensionless scalar value which describes the ratio of the force of friction between two bodies and the force pressing them together.

          If being light weight meant it would handle like crap then those tiny little Lotus Elises would probably be amongst the worst handling vehicles on the road today but instead considered to be pretty close to the best.

          One of the best, under $100K, in America. [caranddriver.com] But, according to the article I just cited, even with a large amount of that handling prowess being the result of fancy electronic nannies, there were still issues of lift-off understeer, likely a result of poor weight distribution common with mid/rear en

          • by Smauler (915644)

            Amontons' First Law: The force of friction is directly proportional to the applied load.

            Therefore, in a perfect world, it doesn't matter at all how heavy your car is, it should go around corners at the same speed all other things being equal. However, it's (obviously) more complicated than that. Generally the lighter your car, the better it will go around a corner. This is mainly due to the way the tyre interacts with the road, and the way it deforms under load.

            The Lotus Elise has far fewer electronic na

      • That doesn't apply to bicycles and motorcycles because they lean and the center of mass is moved so that you don't depend on the width of the contact patch to provide added traction to prevent sliding.

    • by unrtst (777550)

      To achieve a better power to weight ratio, you can either increase power or decrease weight...

      However, as in the realm of cars, the reduction in weight that carbon fiber offers only makes sense in extreme cases (usually the very high end cars).

      Average weight for a new road bike is around 20-22lb. Steel frame ones can be easily found weighing less (ex. 19lb), same for both the others. Really high end carbon fiber bikes may weight around 14lb. A fairly cheap steel road bike frame alone is about 4.5lb (ex. http://www.performancebike.com... [performancebike.com]). .... now to my point... I can afford to lose a lot more than

  • You mean Italian chrome?

  • by Lumpio- (986581) on Monday May 12, 2014 @01:29PM (#46980823)
    You learn something new every day!
    • Ownership of a late model BMW might not fit the budget of most blue-collar folks, but if you head to any moderately affluent city you'll spot nearly as many BMWs as you do Hyundais. Globally annual sales of BMWs are only about 1/7 that of Ford.
    • Well a good used one is very attainable since they tend to not hold their value. I figure I will probably end up driving a used carbon fiber BMW in about 10 years unless my current one gets totaled in an accident before then. Also there are lots of people who like to think they are rich, that and I don't think an entry level 1 series isn't that expensive.
  • by jockm (233372) on Monday May 12, 2014 @01:30PM (#46980845) Homepage

    My cane is made of carbon fiber, so I would say carbon fiber is already "mainstream". What they are talking about is it becoming a commodity. Not just mainstream, but ubiquitous.

    • My cane is made of carbon fiber, so I would say carbon fiber is already "mainstream". What they are talking about is it becoming a commodity. Not just mainstream, but ubiquitous.

      This.

      Some of us remember when the only carbon fiber you could find in an automobile were the dashboards and whale-tails of somebody's run-down Honda Civic.

  • It'd be interesting to see how they plan to do this. The main obstacle to mass production using CFRP (or any fiber-reinforced plastics) is that it takes much longer to put fibers in a mould, impregnate them and have the mixture dry to the point where it can be removed from the mould, than it would to stamp a sheet of aluminium into shape.

    • This is injection molded fiber reinforced plastic, not sheets of fiber laid down with crossing fibers then glued together and autoclaved or vacuum bagged.

      Sets up in more or less the same time as the plastic, but the fibers make the process more abrasive. Not nearly as strong as hand laid CF.

  • CF in Cars (Score:5, Informative)

    by bmajik (96670) <matt@mattevans.org> on Monday May 12, 2014 @01:33PM (#46980885) Homepage Journal

    BMW has already been putting CF into weight-sensitive areas of the car, like the roof panels on certain models. Up high is one of the worst places to carry weight from a vehicle dynamics perspective; it makes nearly every aspect of vehicle handling worse.

    One practical difficulty of CF for general automotive use is that it's not really repairable.

    Of course, modern autobody repair is often about replacing affected panels with pristine replacements (either new or from junk yard cars), as opposed to trying to repair an existing panel. So, in that sense, CF might be a fine choice, as the lack of reparability is in practice a non-issue.

    BMW is already gluing cars together -- for almost 10 years they have been building the front clip on certain models out of aluminum, and in effect gluing it to the remainder of the unibody, which is conventional steel.

    Also, BMW has been designing recyclability into its cars also for at least 15 years. I seem to recall that the E46 3 series was something like 90% recoverable.

    I don't expect they would turn away from their recyclability commitment, so they must have a plausible plan for how they would like to apply it to CF parts.

    • Carbon fibre can be recycled. [bicycling.com] Like paper, recycled CF is not as strong as virgin, but there are uses for it.
    • by rahvin112 (446269)

      Cars are one product on the market that is highly recyclable with for profit recycling of almost every part, the recycling is not only easy but common. Most cars are 90+% recyclable with that 10% or so being things like tires and foam for the seats that generally can't be made into new products. This is partly because cars are made of steel and steel is the most easily recycled material we use. Every steel smelter can recycle steel, no special equipment or processes are required.

      The problem with carbon fibe

  • Roughly, on the same amount of stored electrical energy.

    So carbon fibre body components have a lot of potential to help make EVs range-competitive with fossil fuel cars.

    We are definitely within reach of EVs that are practical for nearly every car driver.

    1.5x better energy density batteries
    1/3 vehicle weight reduction
    1/3 price reduction

    is all that's really needed from where we are now.

    • by AndreR (814444)

      And half the kinetic energy on collisions as well.

      Much less grip on the road as well though, which could be an issue.

      • Less grip doesn't mean much if you don't have to restrain as much energy.
      • Same grip to mass ratio though and for the same speeds, the same grip to momentum ratio and grip to energy ratio.
      • No, there is still basically the the same coefficient of friction between the tires and pavement, so yes there is less downward force but unless you are experiencing lots of cross winds you will never notice. Given how heavy most vehicles are now days lightening them up would probably be a good thing. Having driven several vehicles that have weighed 2000lbs or less as well as ones weighing over 5000lbs cornering and handling have more to do with suspension and center of gravity than with vehicle weight.
    • Roughly, on the same amount of stored electrical energy.

      So carbon fibre body components have a lot of potential to help make EVs range-competitive with fossil fuel cars.

      Provided, of course, that the technology is exclusively implemented on EVs.

    • by Moof123 (1292134) on Monday May 12, 2014 @02:22PM (#46981621)

      No, half the weight does not mean half the fuel usage. Windage losses do not scale with weight, as passenger size does not scale with vehicle weight. Highway driving in particular is dominated by windage losses (after engine Carnot efficiencies of course). A half weight vehicle will see only modest highway MPG improvements not double, and will not be able to scale the engine size down by fully half either due to the horsepower requirements for reasonable highway performance not scaling down by half. So sadly, a half weight frame and body does not let you continue to scale the rest of the weighty vehicle down by half, which does not result in a doubling of MPG or range.

    • Roughly, on the same amount of stored electrical energy.

      So carbon fibre body components have a lot of potential to help make EVs range-competitive with fossil fuel cars.

      We are definitely within reach of EVs that are practical for nearly every car driver.

      1.5x better energy density batteries
      1/3 vehicle weight reduction
      1/3 price reduction

      is all that's really needed from where we are now.

      Wake me when there are battery exchanges or high capacity charging every 30 miles.... Until then pure EVs will be toys for the rich and short range commuter cars for a small minority.

      As a Jeep owner, the biggest concern, for me personally, is what happens when you run out of juice in the middle of nowhere. It's not like you can carry extra batteries with you. At least with gas you can bring an extra container in the trunk when you know that you are going out on a trail, boating, etc. And, if you do get

  • Since my carbon fiber bike is 12 years old at this point.

  • You can bet on almost all aluminum in cars being replaced by carbon fiber. The one exception being engine parts as that seems to be more difficult. But as far as reclaiming carbon fiber after the cars life ends I suspect that carbon fiber could be crushed and shredded as an additive for concrete or asphalt and thus sequestered over and over again for centuries. Who knows? Maybe we will see 3d printed homes created with shredded carbon fiber put in place by quadcopters or bots.
  • 6,000 tons of Carbon Fiber sounds like a lot until you compare it to total US car sales of more than 16 million units. That's about one and a third pound of Carbon Fiber per car.
    http://money.cnn.com/2013/12/0... [cnn.com]

  • Guess what the principle means of making it?
    You guessed it oil or coal tar.

  • It was in squash racquets and top end consumer bikes twenty years ago. The highly protected US car industry is just slow to catch up with the mainstream.

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