BMW's new carbon fiber factory in the United States has brought advanced, lightweight materials developed in Formula One racing one step closer to consumers' driveways.
The German carmaker opened the ultra-modern production plant in Moses Lake, Washington state, on Thursday to supply carbon fiber for its highly anticipated, all-electric i3 Concept car.
Built through a 2009 joint venture with materials specialist SGL Carbon, the $100 million (70 million euro) facility is powered entirely by locally generated hydroelecricity. It will produce up to 3,000 metric tons of carbon fiber annually.
"The facility has been erected in only 10 months and will be the most cost efficient carbon fiber plant using modern technologies," said Andreas Wüllner, Managing Director of SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers.
The fibers produced in Moses Lake will be woven into lightweight fabrics at a second joint venture site in Wackersdorf, Germany, before being formed into carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) parts and components at the BMW plant in Landshut. From there they will be transported to Leipzig, where series production of the i3 is due to start in 2013.
The i3 urban vehicle will be the first model in BMW's new i sub-brand of lightweight, energy efficient models. The larger and sportier i8 is expected to be released in 2014.
"Carbon fibers are a key construction material for the automotive industry of the 21st century and will change the way we develop and build cars," BMW chief executive Norbert Reithofer said in a statement.
"It's a revolution in automotive design," Klaus Draeger, the company's head of development, said earlier.
Fiber of the future
Because of its lightweight properties and proven strength, carbon fiber has long been used in the construction of high-performance racing cars and aircraft.
When carbon fibers are woven, they weigh in around 50 percent lighter than steel and roughly 30 percent lighter than aluminum, making CFRP the lightest material that can be used in a car body without sacrificing safety.
The i3's carbon fiber passenger shell makes it 250 to 350 kilograms lighter than a conventional electric car. BMW said that means more dynamic handling and improved range.
Other benefits of CFRP include corrosion resistance and resilience in severe climate conditions. The material shows little change in shape and size regardless of temperature fluctuations.
"Carbon is the fiber of the future," said Ferdinand Dudenhöffer, an automotive expert at the University Duisburg-Essen. "The heavy use in Formula One racing cars is an indicator that it will filter down to the mass market once the cost of production becomes more affordable. BMW is the closest to achieving solutions on a large scale."
Daimler & Volkswagen follow suit
BMW is not alone in the race to make carbon fiber vehicles easily available to consumers. In April of 2010 Daimler followed BMW's lead by forming a partnership with Toray Industries, a Japanese carbon producer. The group plans to begin mass production of carbon parts for the Mercedes-Benz brand in 2012 at a plant outside Stuttgart, Germany.
With no new plans to mass produce carbon fiber technology in car bodies, Daimler's efforts have focused on high end of the auto market. In 2004, Daimler began offering the Mercedes-Benz McLaren SLR with a carbon-fiber body to match its ceramic disc brakes and 377,000-euro price tag. About 2,000 of the vehicles were sold before production ceased in 2009.
Last, but certainly not least, Volkswagen became the latest German automaker to invest in a major carbon fiber producer when it announced in February of this year that it had purchased an 8.18 percent stake in SGL Carbon. While Volkswagen stated that it does not intend to increase its stake in SGL Carbon, the news certainly came as a surprise to BMW, which had previously bought into the company.
Volkswagen has been pouring resources into its XL1 concept vehicle, which debuted at this year's Qatar Motor show. With a prototype that can travel 100 kilometers on just one liter of diesel fuel, the vehicle is fitted with a lightweight passenger shell constructed of carbon fiber.
Despite the innovations and progress being made in carbon fiber production, Stefan Bratzel, director of the Center of Automotive Management in Bergisch-Gladbach, said carmakers were yet to answer one major question: "A full carbon body could be quite difficult to repair. What will be key is if there's a strategy to deal with that issue."