Carbon fiber has been utilized for decades to build racecars, as a means to cut weight while maintaining strength. But until recently, the space-age material has been largely absent from the street on anything but supercars because of the expense to use it. Recently, BMW signaled a major shift in that trend when it starting using carbon fiber reinforced plastic panels on the i3 and i8. This relatively small scale start might be just the beginning; the German company believes that a breakthrough to inexpensively manufacture the lightweight stuff is just on the horizon.
MAI Carbon Cluster Management GmbH counts BMW, Audi, Airbus, the German government and many other organizations as supporters, and it’s researching how to make carbon fiber cheaper to produce, according to Automotive News Europe. The company thinks it can reduce costs by 90 percent in the near future. “We’ve certainly reached a halfway point on our cost-cutting target for suitable carbon-fiber parts,” said project head Klaus Drechsler to Automotive News Europe.
Unfortunately, it isn’t entirely clear just what MAI Carbon is doing to make such a huge leap possible. However, a recent post on the company’s website talks about a new form a carbon fiber using a thermoplastic matrix that could be cured in less than three minutes. That’s compared to about 90 minutes in the traditional process with an autoclave.
The news of cheaper carbon fiber is especially welcome to companies like BMW that are already pushing its use forward. The automaker is already investing $100 million to triple capacity at its Moses Lake, WA, joint venture factory through 2015, and promises to bring the lightweight material to more models in the future.