German chemical and plastics giant BASF, and The Netherlands-based aircraft composites maker TenCate Advanced Composites, have joined forces to develop and produce glass and carbon continuous fiber-reinforced thermoplastics for high-volume car production.
(Source: TenCate Advanced Composites)
Ann, you often write about composites for automotive applications. This is sorely needed. High end manufacturers, especially in Germany, are producing cars that are very heavy. I have looked at Mercedes and BMW and the trend is not good. When I was comparing the Tesla S to the BMW 5 series that it was designed to compete with, I found that the cars were in the 4,500 pound range. Now, this is their mid-size car. I drive a ten year old Chrysler that is full size and weighs 900 pounds less. I know the reason the German makers do this is stability, but this is getting out of control. What made me think of this again was an article I saw this past weekend about a large Mercedes SUV which came in at about 5,400 pounds. This is going to be a problem for these manufacturers as CAFE standards kick in. Composites will be one of the only ways in which they can lower weight and thereby improve fuel efficiency. This is an issue that both of the manufacturers mentioned have talked publically about in reference to the CAFE standardss.
Rob, carbon fibers are among the strongest materials we have in terms of specific strength (Wikipedia has a good article on this). Generally, carbon composites have a very high strength-to-weight ratio. That ratio varies depending on the composites and also on how they are made (i.e., does it use carbon nanotubes, long fibers and/or short fibers, and how are they laid down in the matrix?).
Good point, Naperlou. Vehicles that weigh 4,500 to 5,500 lbs are going to drag down the manufacturer's CAFE. They will either have to cut weight, or be offset with vehicles that offer huge mileage improvements.
Or Charles, the auto manufacturers will be forced to severly limit the sales of high end, heavy vehicles. This will drive the price up (and the profits for these vehicles) forcing the average buyer to purchase the smaller, lighter, and high MPG cars. Also, the electric and hybrid cars are getting serious looks at lighter weight to further the range of the existing batteries.
Working in the industry, I can tell you my observations: the automotive engineers are looking to carbon fiber composites to reduce the weight of the high volume vehicles. They do some work on the high end, heavy vehicles, but this seems to be for testing (as they can absorb the cost better in the higher margin vehicles). Then when the process is matured, it becomes the standard on the high volume vehicles and crosses over several parts and assemblies. Where the original concept in the test vehicles is limited to a few parts. I also see them going after any and all parts for weight reduction, including drivetrains (think composite oil pans, carbon fiber rims, and plastic transmission components)!
I do not think stability is related to weight. In college, I was part of the solar race car team that designed and built a car to compete with other universities. These were mostly cabon fiber, honycomb core board, and lots of aluminum with just a little bit of steel for critical components. The universities built cars that were less than 700 pounds (minus the driver), stret legal and licensed, and ran at speeds of 60 to 65 mph (though to win the distance race the real speed was more like 45 to 50 mph).
OTOH, having a light vehicle mingled in traffic with a heavy cruiser could have bad results if things went awry! My 3/4 ton SUV would crush one of these super lights in an accident.
So the real issue is safety. Extracting the lightest possible vehicle while maintaining today's safety standards and expectations. I think the consumer will be forced to re-evaluate the need for 'optional' equipment and cost of purchase. But even in this front, the OEM may further the integration of technology to save weight (for example the users smart phone takes care of the entertainment, navigation, and communication). These systems then become 'connectors' made as light as possible.
Nadine, the thing that surprised me the most isn't this part of the trend (composite makers specifically addressing automotive needs), but why car companies didn't start sooner in working with composite companies.
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