Why Carbon Fiber Composite Is Becoming a Formidable Player for Manufacturers
What’s five times as strong as steel and two times as stiff, yet weighs about 70 percent less? It’s carbon fiber, and it’s becoming an increasingly popular alternative material in the manufacturing of a wide variety of products. With properties like this, carbon fiber has automakers and aerospace manufacturers eager to incorporate it into their products and, despite its high price tag, some have already started. The first-known successful commercial application of carbon fiber was when Boeing made some 50 percent of its 787 Dreamliner from this composite in 2009.
According to the Carbon Fiber Report—an in-depth market study on the carbon fiber industry—global sales of carbon fiber-reinforced plastics is estimated to reach $28.2 billion by 2015 and $48.7 billion by 2020. The global demand for carbon fiber is predicted to grow to 154,000 tons in 2020, up 33 percent since 2011.
Father/daughter team Max and Catherine Crawford know a thing or two about the benefits of carbon fiber. Max is a racecar driver-turned-engineer who began experimenting in the 1980s with carbon fiber as a means to lightweight racecars. As the benefits of carbon fiber became more and more clear, he left the world of track engineering to start a business in the design, engineering and production of products featuring this material, and hasn’t slowed down since. His daughter, Catherine—a trained aerodynamicist—has joined her father in running the family business, Crawford Composites.
“Carbon fiber is used in aerospace, motorsports and other industrial applications quite a lot,” said Catherine Crawford. “And everything that we use it in is to make things lighter, stronger and more corrosion-resistant. You can form it into really complicated shapes, keep the weight down, and keep the strength up.”
She says the automotive industry has been using carbon fiber for “quite some time,” particularly makers of high-end vehicles, like Volkswagen and BMW.
According to Plastics News, both General Motors Co. and BMW AG introduced cars at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January that use more carbon fiber composites than their previous models. And, the bodies and cockpits of the BMW i3 electric car and the BMW i8 hybrid sports car are made almost entirely of carbon fiber composite.
“It is light and strong, which makes the car more fuel-efficient, also improving the power-to-weight ratio,” said Catherine Crawford. “It also looks sexy, so it’s being used in sports cars, but the
productionized versions haven’t really been incorporating carbon fiber due to the expense.”
While the price of carbon fiber had been coming down, Catherine Crawford says increased demand by the aerospace industry has made it more difficult to get, and the expense remains high. But according to her father, the price has dropped drastically since he began using it in the ‘80s.
“Right now, most of the higher-end cars have carbon fiber components,” Max Crawford said. “The ever-present development of advanced composite materials, resin systems, and processing methods has allowed the incorporation of more carbon in automotive products, however, the cost remains high. Companies are experimenting all the time trying to find ways to productionize it, make it more readily available, and less expensive to produce.”
In 2012, The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) studied the issue of the high cost of carbon fiber and released recommendations for kick-starting the adoption of carbon fiber composites in automobiles. Its report stated that, despite its high cost, the value added by using carbon fiber in auto parts is so great, it offsets this cost. According to RMI estimates, it would cost between $2.78 to $4.76 per pound to replace auto-body parts with carbon fiber. While this could decrease a car’s weight by some 50 percent, the exorbitant increase in total cost per car could not be passed on to consumers.
Recognizing this, RMI proposed the slow and gradual introduction of carbon fiber parts into vehicles—beginning with the high-value parts—to establish a healthy carbon fiber composite supply chain. The increase in demand for carbon fiber composites would eventually result in the lowering of carbon fiber prices, and automakers would then be able to incorporate more and more parts made of this composite into their vehicles.
One criticism of carbon fiber is that it is not easily recycled, but the Crawfords say this is a myth.
“Personally, I feel the recent development of recycled carbon fiber material is incredibly important,” said Max Crawford. “Not only is recycled material a vital move toward significant cost savings, it also has the potential for a staggering impact on our environment—for example, the reduction of aircraft components consigned to landfills. That alone is staggering.”
Crawford has been experimenting for some time with recycled carbon and is now incorporating it very successfully into select products.