Carbon fiber "is a key material" to build lighter weight vehicles to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions, says Klaus Draeger, BMW AG board member for purchasing and the supplier network.
The plant produces 3,000 tons of carbon fiber annually. This summer, with the addition of two production lines, the annual capacity will double to 6,000 tons. By the end of next year with two more lines, the annual capacity will triple from today's output to 9,000 tons. The factory uses hydropower to produce the carbon fiber.
The joint venture supplies 20 percent of the world's carbon fiber and the target was to "reduce cost and manufacture it in a sustainable way -- that was a very critical element for us from a strategic point of view," Pohlman said.
The carbon fiber reinforced plastic thread is shipped to a BMW plant in Wackersdorf, Germany, where it is woven into a textile sheet.
"We did a lot to streamline process here and in Wackersdorf in the textile area," Pohlman said.
The Moses Lake factory cut the cost of the carbon fiber threads it produces by not using the industrial strength material necessary for aerospace, he said.
The cost of the carbon fiber his factory produces is about one-third of what the aerospace industry uses, Pohlman said.
"Aerospace has tensile strength and material properties we do not need. It is a big opportunity for the auto industry that hasn't been tapped into," he said.
The synthetic resin used to make carbon fiber is sourced from a joint venture in Japan formed by SGL and Mitsubishi Rayon, he said. BMW is not involved in that partnership.
The use of hydropower also has helped cut costs. The factory pays about 4 cents per kilowatt hour while Wackersdorf pays about 20 cents per kilowatt hour to power its operation, Pohlman said.
Researchers are trying to find less costly raw materials to produce the thread.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory is experimenting with the use of lignin -- a cheap byproduct of the conversion of wood pulp into paper -- which costs less than the materials currently used to make carbon fiber thread. Pohlman said BMW is also looking at lignin but "at this point it does not render the properties we need for the automotive industry."
Pohlman would not give a per pound cost for its carbon fiber. "There is no one out there who can manufacturer carbon fiber cheaper than we are doing it here," he said.
"Yes it is true, we probably underestimated the complexity, but we learned a lot in a very short time span."