In March 2015, Ford unveiled its all-new GT, a high-performance, production-volume sports car, and made a claim that would seem to indicate where our cars and trucks are headed: “Few innovations provide a more wide-ranging performance and efficiency advantage than reducing weight. All factors of a vehicle’s capabilities – acceleration, handling, braking, safety, efficiency – can improve through the use of advanced, lighter materials.” In other words, our cars and trucks are going on a huge diet.

What “advanced, lighter materials” can do all that, according to Ford? Carbon fiber-reinforced plastics.

For years we’ve been hearing of the imminent widespread use of carbon fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) in our cars and trucks. These high-tech materials are already used in tennis rackets, fishing rods, bicycle frames, prosthetic limbs, bridges, NASA drones, even Boeing Dreamliners – cars are next, right?

 In reality, CFRP auto parts have been around for some time. But to date, large-scale production of CFRP parts has been a slow and expensive process, so they largely have been employed in luxury or performance cars. So when will CFRP components make their way into the family car? It’s already happening. And several converging forces make it clear that these components are headed toward mainstream use over the next decade.

For those unfamiliar with CFRP, here’s a quick tutorial. Carbon fiber is an incredibly small-diameter fiber (or filament) – usually between five and 10 microns in diameter – made mostly of carbon atoms. These fibers typically are bundled to form thread (or tow) that often is woven into a fabric. “Carbon fiber” when used in layman’s terms (such as in news stories) often refers to “carbon fiber-reinforced plastics” – that is, a composite made up of carbon fibers plus some type of plastic or combination of plastics. Another way to look at it: plastics reinforced with carbon fiber. The combination results in materials that can be up to:

    10 times stronger than steel;
    50 percent lighter than steel;
    30 percent lighter than aluminum.

While today’s autos are approximately 10 percent plastics by weight, roughly half the volume of each vehicle, on average, is actually made from plastics. Bumpers, door panels, seating, dashboards, carpeting, lighting, insulation, gas tanks, components for the transmission, suspension and brakes, plus more and more parts under the hood. The list grows every year.

With the growing use of CFRP, that percentage is expected to grow further. In fact, industry experts predict plastics’ use in vehicles will increase 75 percent by 2020.What’s driving the growth of plastics and CFRP? Fuel efficiency, safety and innovation.

 Fuel efficiency: To comply with Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, our nation’s cars and light trucks must average a demanding 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. CFRP car components generally weigh less, which can help improve fuel efficiency. Just a 10 percent reduction in vehicle weight can increase fuel efficiency 6 to 8 percent over the life of today’s cars.

Safety: Lightweight plastics already play an integral role in many auto safety features: seat belts, air bags, interior cushioning, crumple zones, bumpers, safety glass and so on. CFRP auto components will build on that role since they have a very high energy-absorption rate, which can contribute to improved safety in a collision. BMW calls CFRP “an especially light and high-strength material that provides outstanding protection to vehicle passengers in the event of an emergency.”

Innovation: Many automakers have invested heavily in CFRP applications, resulting in new technologies that allow these components to be produced more quickly and economically. Plus, the federal government recently launched the Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation Institute, noting that “advanced composites could reduce passenger car weight by 50 percent and improve fuel efficiency by about 35 percent.”

In May 2014, BMW introduced the i3 in the United States, an electric car that has a long waiting list. The i3 is the first mass-produced vehicle with a major component – the passenger compartment – made from CFRP. BMW announced its plans to use “the ultra-lightweight, high-tech material for other model series at competitive costs and in large quantities.” The company said it expects to expand capacity at its carbon fiber production plant in Moses Lake, Wash., making it the world’s largest carbon fiber facility in 2015.

The new Ford GT passenger cell is made of CFRP, and its front and rear subframes are wrapped in structural CFRP body panels. In its news release announcing the GT, Ford said, “advanced lightweight composites … will help serve Ford’s entire product lineup moving forward.” One early example: Ford’s new Shelby GT350R Mustang has a CFRP rear wing and comes standard with CFRP wheels, reducing weight by 13 pounds per wheel. Ford also is a partner in a joint venture that is working to increase availability of cost-effective carbon fiber, while also developing a high-volume manufacturing process for CFRP parts. In Europe, BMW, Audi, and more than 70 companies and organizations are backing a materials development group supported by Germany’s federal government, businesses and research institutions, with the goal of cutting carbon fiber production costs by a whopping 90 percent.

Lux Research recently predicted that use of CFRP in autos would dwarf current applications in the coming decade, due to the rapid pace of technology development, leading to widespread adoption for automotive lightweighting by 2025. As Ford put it, CFRP “is one of the world’s strongest materials for its mass – enabling an ultra-stiff foundation for chassis components, while creating a lighter overall package for increased dynamic performance and efficiency.”

Well said. That basically sums up why plastics and carbon fiber are becoming an even bigger part of the future of our cars and trucks. 

Matthew D. Marks is the chair of the Automotive Team, American Chemistry Council, Plastics Division and senior business manager at Innovative Plastics, SABIC.

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