Carbon fibre use increasing in the automotive industry

The 2011 Corvette Z06 Carbon Limited Edition makes abundant use of CFRP components.
The 2011 Corvette Z06 Carbon Limited Edition makes abundant use of CFRP components.
The MonoCell tub for the McLaren MP4-12C is moulded as a single piece and weighs less than 80 kg.
The MonoCell tub for the McLaren MP4-12C is moulded as a single piece and weighs less than 80 kg.

Automotive applications of carbon fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP) are increasing. Lucintel has revised upward its forecast of growth in the carbon fibre market from 9.8% per year over the next five years to 13% per year. Its latest market report, Growth Opportunities in the Carbon Fibre Market 2010-2015, notes that “supply has increased to the degree that some manufacturers now have ample supply of carbon fibre with relatively low lead times to consumers.”

BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Lamborghini and other high-end automakers have committed to the increased use of CFRP components in their vehicles to reduce weight. Daimler has set a body in white weight reduction target of up to 10% for all of its models and is looking to carbon fibre materials for some of that weight saving. Daimler and Toray Industries are working to develop CFRP automotive parts using Toray’s High Cycle RTM [resin transfer moulding] process technology.

The SGL Group reported that sales in its Carbon Fibres & Composites business increased by 6% in the first nine months of 2010. The SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers GmbH joint venture with BMW is dedicated to producing carbon fibre for BMW’s Megacity vehicle, the company’s first production electric car. Carbon fibre will be manufactured in the USA, while the CFRP parts, including the passenger compartment structural cage, will be produced using an RTM process by BMW in Germany. The car is being called the world’s first large-scale production vehicle designed with a CFRP passenger cell.

Toray, another leading global carbon fibre manufacturer, has identified automotive applications as a top priority for its carbon fibre products. The company expects the adoption of carbon fibre composites to gain momentum in the near term as a means to produce significantly lighter vehicles. Through the collaboration with Daimler, Toray says it aims to establish mass production technology for CFRP automotive parts and further expand its carbon fibre and advanced composites business in the automotive industry.

McLaren has been using carbon fibre composites since 2004, when the series production of the SLR McLaren high-performance sports car was launched. Today, the latest model, the McLaren MP4-12C supercar, features a CFRP MonoCell tub, moulded as a single-piece that is designed to protect the occupants. Produced by Austrian supplier Carbotech using Toray carbon fibres, the large component is a hollow structure that weighs less than 80 kg (176 lbs).

Lamborghini has also stated that it intends to add more CFRP components to its vehicles. The re-engineered Murcielago LP670-4 SV is lighter by 220 lbs, primarily because of the greater use of CFRP components, which provide an improved weight-to-power ratio and added agility, the automaker reports. A high priority is the development of out-of-autoclave curing to increase the production rate and reduce costs for future vehicle systems, says Lamborghini.

Composites have long been the material choice for concept cars, mainly because of the design freedom and reduced tooling costs they offer. Lamborghini recently introduced its CFRP demonstrator concept, the Sesto Elemento, which weighs only 999 kg (2204 lbs). For another concept, TenCate Aerospace Composites supplied carbon fibre materials for a 15 m long electric Superbus, which features a chassis entirely of CFRP, along with other carbon fibre components.

Chevrolet has introduced the 2011 Z06 Carbon Limited Edition Corvette, which features a carbon fibre hood, roof panel with a full-width body spoiler, rocker panels and air splitters. But the 2011 Corvette ZR1 carries even more carbon content – eight components with a total weight of 34 lbs (15.4 kg) or one half the weight of equivalent glass fibre SMC [sheet moulding compound] parts. CFRP parts for Corvette models and other vehicles are produced by Plasan Carbon Composites, the leading Tier 1 supplier of carbon fibre parts and assemblies in the USA.

Last spring carbon fibre supplier Zoltek announced the formation of Zoltek Automotive to focus on the development of high-volume applications for carbon fibre in the automotive industry. Zoltek has long viewed the automotive industry as the biggest single potential user of its carbon fibre. David Stewart, Chief Executive of Zoltek Automotive, recently observed that the value proposition and regulatory environment for carbon fibre automotive components have never been better. Stewart is the founder of Stewart Research, which has extensive experience in the automotive industry and composites.

“There is a large and rapidly growing range of applications where these materials are ready to come out of the laboratory and into high-volume production,” relates Stewart. “Our goal is to combine the materials expertise of Zoltek Companies, Inc. with the automotive analysis tools, testing capabilities and process knowledge of Stewart Research to match emerging lightweighting opportunities with the right composite designs and manufacturing processes.  

This article is an extract from the feature Rebounding automotive industry is welcome news for FRP sector published in the January/February 2011 issue of Reinforced Plastics magazine. Read the complete feature here.