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Throughout The Car Industry

Carbon Fiber Vs Steel

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On: Thu, Jan 23, 2014 at 3:45PM | By: Karen Cook

Carbon Fiber Vs Steel

The Detroit Auto Show held earlier this month abounded with cars sporting the latest in technological applications. A popular trend among manufacturers appears to be carbon fiber used in the body of their vehicles. Previously this sort of thing would be reserved for race cars or high-end luxury cars due to the expense of producing and using the material. What we commonly call “carbon fiber” is actually carbon fiber reinforced polymer. It attracts manufacturers because it is five times stronger than steel and weighs two-thirds less. This means that, if a typical automobile is made of carbon fiber instead of steel, the mass weight will drop by 60% and use 30% less gas—and lower emissions from 10% to 20%.

Another drawback of carbon fiber was the time it takes to mold during production, about five minutes to mold a frame. A few years ago a Japanese company discovered that if a special thermoplastic resin was mixed with the carbon fiber the time could be reduced to less than 60 seconds. This could be part of the reason for the sudden use in newer cars.

All is not rosy for carbon fiber use though. Electric automobile manufacturers are enamored with it because battery-powered vehicles require the lightest weight possible in order to extend driving time. Heavier materials cause the battery to work harder and thus achieve less distance on a charge. EV makers are naturally environmentally conscious and that’s where the problem is.

Steel can be melted down and reused indefinitely. Carbon fiber cannot be melted and if it's recycled it loses a large portion of its strength. The emissions loosed into the atmosphere during production must be factored in the equation also, along with the cost to the environment connected with the disposal of old carbon fiber materials. This is too much math for me, but the experts must decide if subtracting gasoline offsets the addition of carbon fiber. It may be a lesser of two evils situation.

If the Detroit show is any indication, the math appears to be working in favor of carbon fiber. Chevrolet has given its Z06 and Stingray carbon fiber hood and roof panels and reduced the weight of these vehicles by about 100 lbs. BMW used the material on the M3 sedan and M4 coupe for a weight drop of 176 lbs. The all-electric i3 and the i8 hybrid also got the carbon fiber treatment.

Using the space-age polymer is still expensive, but the price is dropping and it seems likely that more and more passenger vehicles will be made of this strong, yet lightweight, substance in the future.


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