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A CARBON-FIBER link is being forged (er… woven) between BMW and Boeing. According to Reuters, the two companies will cooperate in research and development of this lightweight material.
Carbon fiber has been around for decades (remember Matty Holtzberg’s small-block pushrods made of this material?). Carbon fiber is familiar in high-end sports, from golf, to tennis, to Formula 1. The industry news today is about the growing maturity of this material as it finds increased use in both aerospace and automotive manufacturing.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is 50-percent carbon fiber. BMW’s i3 city Battery Electric Vehicle, coming next year, has carbon-fiber reinforcement of its passenger safety cell. Its M3 coupe already has a roof of this material.
One by one, the challenges of high material cost, labor-intensive fabrication and complex production are being outweighed by carbon fiber’s 30-percent weight advantage over aluminum and its design benefits of directional strength.
The key points in the BMW/Boeing announcement are recycling and, as subtext, a corporate cat fight.
Recycling carbon fiber is necessary as part of the Life-Cycle Assessment that comes with full optimization of this material. LCA analyzes everything from feedstock through fabrication, to use and ultimate disposal. With regard to this last criterion, carbon fiber is more like a tire than any metallic material or many plastics.
Tires can’t be “unvulcanized.” Recycling a tire typically consists of grinding it into rubber crumbs (for acoustic mats, rubberized asphalt and the like) or rubber mulch (for landscaping). None of these applications returns the high value of the tire.
Similarly, once completed, a carbon-fiber piece can’t be “unbagged.” And its costs are too great for it to be simply ground up.
However, innovative ideas have been proposed: At the end of an automobile’s life, for instance, renew everything but the passenger-cell/chassis. Reclothe, if you will, this carbon-fiber assemblage for a second or even third automotive life.
As another idea, clever design of initial carbon-fiber components could permit their dismantling and reuse in other areas: Part of a body, possibly no longer with a class-A finish, could find new life beneath the skin as a chassis element.
I suspect this is a part of the R&D being undertaken by BMW and Boeing. Other fruitful areas include basic materials research and optimized fabrication techniques.
The cat fight? Both BMW and Volkswagen have tie-ins with SGL, a carbon-fiber specialist in the state of Washington. Back in 2005, Audi and SGL worked jointly on brake discs. Last year, BMW and SGL cooperated in building a $100 million plant in Moses Lake, Washington.
VW’s work with Boeing has been through Lamborghini and its extensive carbon-fiber applications. Now that the aerospace giant is moving big time into 787 Dreamliner production, it has even more expertise to share. But exactly how much? And with whom? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2012