BMW-backed researchers close in on cheaper carbon fiber

A machine produces carbon fiber used for BMW's i line of cars.

MUNICH -- Large-scale manufacturing of cars made with lightweight carbon fiber is moving closer to reality as costs start to fall, according to a materials-development group that has BMW AG as a partner.

MAI Carbon Cluster Management GmbH, a research effort supported by Germany's federal government, businesses and research institutions, is making progress toward reducing carbon-fiber production costs by 90 percent, according to Klaus Drechsler, head of the 80 million-euro ($102 million) project.

"We've certainly reached a halfway point on our cost-cutting target for suitable carbon-fiber parts," said Drechsler, who's also a professor at the Technical University of Munich. "We'll see a lot more carbon-fiber use in the next generation of cars."

BMW and Audi AG, the world's two biggest makers of luxury cars, are among more than 70 companies and other entities backing MAI.

Manufacturers are seeking carbon-fiber components to replace standard metal parts that may weigh twice as much.

The material was reserved until recently for high-end sports cars because it costs as much as $20 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) in its raw form, compared with less than $1 for steel, according to Roland Berger Strategy Consultants.

"The key is to really drive automation" in production, Drechsler said. "There are different scenarios about how carmakers can use carbon fiber -- extensively like BMW, with a carbon-fiber chassis, or with smaller components."

Carbon fiber is used in the passenger frame for the BMW i3 electric city car, pictured, and BMW i8 hybrid sports car. Both models are built in Germany. Photo credit: BLOOMBERG

Electric cars

MAI, based in Augsburg, Germany, is funded for at least the five years through in 2017. Partners also include planemaker Airbus Group NV, engineering company Siemens AG and SGL Carbon SE, which has a joint venture with BMW to produce carbon fiber that's used in the passenger frame for the vehicle manufacturer's i3 electric city car and i8 hybrid sports car.

BMW started rolling out the i3 almost a year ago in November and sold more than 10,000 of the model in the first nine months of this year. Similar research efforts are under way in the U.S.

Established in 2011, Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium, based in Oak Ridge, Tenn., is pursuing new, lower-cost carbon-fiber materials with partners including Ford Motor Co. and Dow Chemical Co.

The technology is already "very, very economical" in BMW's i8 and could be used in other models like the high-end 7-Series sedan to cut weight, Herbert Diess, head of development for BMW, said in a recent interview at the Paris auto show

Applications of carbon fiber in cheaper vehicles "is going to develop over time," Diess said. "Mixed use of materials is a becoming a key term across the industry."

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