The Growing Role of Carbon Fiber-Reinforced Plastics in Autos

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With the goal of reaching a government-mandated Corporate Average Fuel Economy equivalent of 54.4 miles-per-gallon by 2025, automakers continue to seek materials that are both light and strong to use in the manufacturing process.

Lighter vehicles help improve fuel mileage, and strong ones help keep passengers safer. Carbon fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) are a group of advanced materials that can meet both requirements.

Carbon fiber-reinforced plastics: Not just for racecars

Once limited to the auto racing world because of cost and production factors, carbon fiber is now beginning to show up in the construction of some mainstream vehicles, a trend that is likely to continue with breakthroughs in research expected to make CFRP and other composites cheaper and faster to produce.

They are already an establ alternative.

GM shaved 37 pounds off the 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray by equipping it with carbon fiber-reinforced hood and roof assemblies. Ford made even more extensive use of carbon fiber in the design of its GT super car. And BMW turned to carbon fiber for the passenger compartments in its first all-electric vehicles, the BMW i3 and i8, to help improve fuel efficiency as well as safety.

What is carbon fiber?

So, what is this miracle material?

Essentially, carbon fiber is a very thin but exceptionally strong (think diamonds) fiber made mostly of carbon atoms that can be bundled together to form a thread, which can then be woven into a fabric. It must be combined with other materials for use in manufacturing automobiles, or other items that require strong, lightweight construction, such as airplane fuselages (like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner) or sports equipment. But carbon fiber is most commonly combined with plastics. Thus the proper term for the material is carbon fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP), but it is often referred to as simply carbon fiber.

F1 cars of carbon fiber construction

CFRP tennis rackets and golf clubs helped transform the way those sports were played, and they also revolutionized Formula 1 race cars, making them lighter, stronger, stiffer, and with parts more easily molded into different shapes.

In passenger automobiles, it can be found in components like rear spoilers, hoods, roofs, and even internal parts such as dashes and interior trims. Cosmetically, it can have an appealing appearance while saving weight.

Significant weight savings

CFRP is typically 30 to 50 percent lighter than conventional materials used in automobile construction and thus can help pass on fuel savings to the consumer. Overall, plastics and plastic composites account for about 50 percent of the volume of a typical vehicle, but only 10 percent of its weight.

Several automakers are banking on extensive use of CFRP in their future vehicle lineups. The idea is to trim even more pounds off vehicles, and a reduction of 10 percent in weight can lead to an increase of up to 8 percent in fuel economy.

In April, Ford signed an agreement with DowAksa, a 50:50 joint venture between Dow Chemical and Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii A.Ş., to bring “carbon fiber to the broader market.” Based in Yalova, Turkey, Aksa is a large producer of acrylic fibers, a key raw material in the production of carbon fibers.

Use in hydrogen fuel tanks

Toyota used CFRP fuel tanks in the development of its fuel cell electric vehicle Mirai that will be available to customers in California this fall. The Mirai is powered by hydrogen and runs about 300 miles on a full tank. The Japanese automaker also used CFRP accents in Lexus models with the “F Sport” package, including the GS F sedan and LFA Supercar.

GM plans to include CFRP in a mix of materials in its efforts to lighten the load of its future vehicles, and Chrysler Group also is gearing up to use more carbon fiber elements in its lineup, including the Dodge Dart as well as the exotic SRT Viper.

Cut weight without compromising safety

With the U.S. Department of Energy setting a goal of reducing production costs of carbon fiber by 50 percent, CFRP figures to become an even more effective tool in the continuous search to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles. The DOE maintains the next generation of carbon fiber composites could reduce passenger car weight by 50 percent and improve fuel efficiency by about 35 percent without compromising performance or safety, which could save more than $5,000 in fuel over the life of the car at today’s gasoline prices.