There's no one single breakthrough, but rather a combination of improvements that make this possible.

Automakers have dreamed of using carbon fiber in mass production for decades. But sky-high raw material prices and painfully slow manufacturing cycle times meant that dream was always more like a fantasy. Not anymore. Several recent advancements mean that carbon fiber could soon play an important role in the automotive industry.

Carbon fiber has been used in race cars, exotic sports cars and in automotive aftermarket parts for years. But now automakers believe they've identified the path of how to use it in mass production, and do so by the second half of this decade.

There's no one single breakthrough, but rather a combination of improvements that make this possible. And they're coming just in time for automakers who face the daunting task of boosting their average fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon.


John McElroyJohn McElroy is host of the TV program "Autoline Detroit" and daily web video "Autoline Daily". Every month he brings his unique insights as a Detroit insider to Autoblog readers.


Most carbon fiber components manufactured today are made in autoclaves, essentially big ovens that bake those parts at intensely high temperatures and pressures. But the autoclave cycle-time needed to make, say, a hood, is 90 minutes. That may be good enough to make body panels, cross braces and other parts for a car like the low-volume SRT Viper. But it's not nearly fast enough for mass production where cars are rolling off the line every 60 seconds.

A crucial bottleneck is the manual layup of carbon fiber, where sections are cut with scissors and laid into a mold by hand. It takes forever. The next big improvement will come from using robots to cut and place all the carbon pieces, as well as load and unload the molding machines.
Carbon fiber molders such as Plasan, which makes the body panels for the Viper, are just now starting to use an induction process where infrared heat is used instead of an autoclave. This cuts cycle times to only 17 minutes, good enough to boost volumes to 30-50,000 cars a year – a very big step forward, but still not mass to production levels.

Suppliers such as Dow Automotive are working on developing new resins that flow faster and at lower temperatures. They want a low viscosity resin that shoots into a mold like water, quickly getting into all the nooks and crannies, but then sets very quickly. They call it command cure. This will lead to cycle times of only 5 to 7 minutes, tantalizingly close to what's needed for mass production. The new resins are being used in a process called Resin Transfer Molding, or RTM. It allows molders to place a carbon fiber mat in a mold, close it up, shoot in hot resin at high pressure, then take out a completed part.

You may have seen the carbon fiber wheel that recently debuted at the SEMA Show, made by an Australian company called Carbon Revolution. Though company officers will not disclose how the wheel is made, they admit it's very similar to the RTM process.

Making carbon fiber is complicated but fairly straightforward: You take a fiber and heat it up until it carbonizes. But automakers use an aerospace-grade carbon fiber called polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which has a level of purity that greatly exceeds what's needed for automotive applications. At roughly $15 a pound (steel is less than 40 cents per pound), it's another reason why carbon fiber is so expensive. But it's the only carbon fiber available, so that's why they use it. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which is doing some of the most advanced research in this field in the US, is looking at using different materials, notably polyethylene, which is significantly cheaper. Oak Ridge is also experimenting with lignin, which offers the intriguing possibility of making carbon fiber from bio-mass. And with the abundance of natural gas now available in the US, it's also looking into making carbon fiber with that.

Another part of Oak Ridge's work is developing Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) tools for engineers to predict how their carbon fiber designs will perform. Amazingly, those tools aren't available yet. Other research includes USCAR, the US Council on Automotive Research, which is delving into how to make cost-effective floorpans and frame rails.

You can't just start using these pieces in a car without thinking through the entire manufacturing process.

Developing carbon fiber components for mass production means designing them to fit into the existing automotive manufacturing infrastructure. If these are structural components that go into a car early in the assembly process, they will need to withstand the electro-coat and 400º F bake ovens in assembly plants without warping or losing strength. Structural adhesives will have to replace welding operations, and there won't be any "metal finishing" to smooth out any blemishes. The point is, you can't just start using these pieces in a car without thinking through the entire manufacturing process.

Now automakers are focused on developing cycle times that are well under 5 minutes, a key enabler for mass production. And everyone is getting in on the game. Toyota, Daimler, Subaru and Nissan have agreements with the Japanese company Toray, the largest carbon fiber supplier in the world. Ford is teaming up with US-based Dow, while General Motors recently signed an agreement with Teijin, another Japanese company. BMW formed a joint venture with the German supplier SGL. Indeed, BMW claims it will be the first major automaker to sell an all-carbon car, its electric i3.

After 2015, carbon fiber applications in the automotive industry are projected to grow 10-15% a year.

This segment is so strategic that Volkswagen rushed in last year to buy 8.2 of SGL simply to prevent VW from gaining any more control. Susanne Klatten, a member of the Quandt family and the heiress to the BMW empire, owns 29% of SGL. VW may want to find another source quickly. New suppliers from China and South Korea are emerging, but there are few other large-scale suppliers out there.

And no one wants to be left out. After 2015, carbon fiber applications in the automotive industry are projected to grow 10-15% a year. It's almost like the computer industry was 40 years ago.

There are still many issues left to be resolved, especially repairing carbon fiber cars at dealerships and body shops. But mass-production carbon fiber could become be one of the greatest growth segments in the automotive industry in the second half of this decade.


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  • 36 Comments
      mikeybyte1
      • 2 Years Ago
      Great article. Very informative!
      Andre Neves
      • 2 Years Ago
      Me, I'm more of a Titanium Alloy type of guy ;) Ti > CF
      Gabbo
      • 2 Years Ago
      Sorry, John - carbon fiber has only progressed from "outrageously expensive" down to " emabarassinly expensive". Don't look for carbon fiber parts this decade, except on hyper-expensive platforms.
      ocbreaker
      • 2 Years Ago
      i remember a couple years back lamborghini debuted a new type of carbon fiber they called "forged composite" in their sesto elemento concept car. it was supposed to be much cheaper and easier to form complex shapes. looked promising, but haven't heard anything about it since.
        James Lundström
        • 2 Years Ago
        @ocbreaker
        The same technology is used by Callaway in golf clubs. The main reason your're not seeing more about it is patents. So far it's only available to afew companies.
      Matthew Simmons
      • 2 Years Ago
      Could you imagine a BR-Z with an all carbon fiber body.
      mbukukanyau
      • 2 Years Ago
      This is going to be even more revolutionary for spacecraft construction and aeroplanes
      Amit
      • 2 Years Ago
      I am currently attending UT Arlington and I attended the 27th Annual International composites convention this year. I met and work with many industry professionals and the majority belived that Cabon Fiber was ready to be mass produced but the only set back was the inability to understand wear and tear as well as specifically phase 3 stress fractures. The keynote speaker highlighted the lack of reliable data concearning the failures modes of carbon fiber. Today i will be laying up a carbon fiber under-tray for the UTA Race team. It is 120x120 and takes 16 hours to lay up. And then it will be vacum bagged and cooked. Personally i think the big set back in carbon fiber is the cost of production. Mass production is cheap. But can you imagine if every body shop had to own an autoclave. Not to mention the hourly rate you have to pay bodyshops. Currently i think it would be too expensive. But the RTM process might prove more cost effective for the little guy.
        Hoale
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Amit
        Couldn't most body damage on carbon fiber panels be fixed with fiberglass and resin or bondo? Unless its a structural part of the car?
          Noahfreak2
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Hoale
          Or you could do like most shops do now anyway, just replace the whole panel. If it becomes that cheap to mass produce, it'll be that cheap to sell them in the aftermarket too. But I do agree that resins that cure with UV, like you'd see on a surf board, would probably make its way into body shops. And if the resins were compatible, I doubt you'd see compromising of structural integrity. Maybe some added weight, but otherwise would be sound.
      • 2 Years Ago
      [blocked]
        Agilis
        • 2 Years Ago
        That brace consists of 30 layers of carbon fiber and costs $3175. It's ridiculously strong.
        Matt
        • 2 Years Ago
        That's one fine ass of an idea then since that brace helps stiffen the chassis by 50% compared to the previous generation Viper.
        QCRamAir
        • 2 Years Ago
        Are you retarded, or just ridiculously stupid?
          Bud
          • 2 Years Ago
          @QCRamAir
          Actually you must all be retarded or stupid. First - its major attribute is visual appearance on top of the engine bay which is style over function. Secondly - it attaches to a piece of low grade steel tube that has very wide tolerances to its spacial positioning where the thing mounts to - so the rigid brace will need to have some either big ass holes, to allow it to be fitted online - which will mean it will be liable to slip/fret/wear or whatever unless unholy clamp loads are used (which you can't do on CF) or metal bosses will have to molded in, again with large internal tolerances for fitting. The total system design violates any aerospace or racing car design law. CF is never best used in isolation or substitution but in a total system design. The only benefit will be its marginal benefit in vehicle dynamics as a reduction in high up mass, but probably unmeasurable. There are far better ways to spend the dollars - again it is fad engineering ! !
          RodRAEG
          • 2 Years Ago
          @QCRamAir
          Actually, Bud, you're way off there. Implementing carbon fiber components into structures is doable as long as the mounting points are reinforced. Saying it's visual over function is idiotic because it will almost guaranteed be able to outlast a steel brace due to the fact that cfrp does not fatigue within its elastic region of deformation, while also being lighter and more rigid, and I'm pretty sure they were smart enough to take weave position into account as well to maximize this. This is a $100k car after all, and it's a goddam Viper. Of course it's going to be flamboyant.
        Dmitriy Markelov
        • 2 Years Ago
        It's actually a great idea. Easy to install and very cheap when manufactured using less exotic materials while providing great structural support and increasing rigidity.
        RodRAEG
        • 2 Years Ago
        Actually, it is partially plastic.
      mbukukanyau
      • 2 Years Ago
      The Chinese will seat out the research and then copy it.
      Ethan
      • 2 Years Ago
      Carbon fibre with jet engine...will it ever be realise one day?
      Hoale
      • 2 Years Ago
      wasn't there an option to get a carbon fiber hood for the Boss 302 (or maybe another car) and it was like $15K or something outrageous
      Noahfreak2
      • 1 Year Ago
      I've seen carbon fiber panels available on the internet that are comparable in price to the OEM versions, like hoods and fenders. Why is this true in the aftermarket while the big manufacturers haven't figured it out yet?
        tonio
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Noahfreak2
        because they dont have a carbon fiber structure, those hoods and fenders only have a layer of carbon fiber on top of another material, most likely glass fiber
        tonio
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Noahfreak2
        because those fenders and hoods doesnt have a carbon fiber structure, they just have a layer of carbon fiber on top of another material, most likely glass fiber
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