Move over aluminum: Carbon fibre steps up its game

The 2016 Corvette Z06 features a carbon fibre hood with a visible weave section.

By Jeff Sanford

Toronto, Ontario — September 9, 2015 — On the materials side, the big news in the industry of late has been the move to the use of more aluminum in vehicles, especially in the case of the latest Ford-150.

But some are already looking beyond aluminum to carbon fibre, an advanced, lightweight material first used on jet fighters that is now considered the “next big thing” for auto bodies.

Is this new material really something collision centre owners need to be up-to-date on? Or is the talk still in the hype stage?

The answer, arguably, is “a bit of both.”

The new 2016 model year will see carbon fibre used on some cars that will be sold in the average Canadian neighborhood dealership, among them the new BMW 7-series sedan and the and Chevrolet Corvette Z06. While these are definitely high-end vehicles, carbon fibre has typically only been seen in extremely high-end European sports cars like Ferraris or McLarens. But the use of carbon fibre is expanding, and so it seems the era of carbon fiber is evolving rapidly.

The material has a lot of impressive characteristics and would no doubt already be in common use if it weren’t so expensive. First off, it is labour intensive. A human being has to cut the carbon fibre cloth with scissors and lay it into a mold by hand. The material then has to be baked in extremely high-temperature autoclaves for up to 90 minutes. But it is 50 percent less weighty than steel and 30 percent less than aluminum. With the drive towards extreme lightweighting, this exotic material may be showing up in more cars in the near future. 

Facilitating adoption of carbon fibre will be more affordable versions of this material. As it is, all the carbon fibre manufactured today is considered “aerospace grade,” which is described as “purer-than-necessary” for use in cars. The price is atmospheric, up to about $15 per pound. Compare that to steel, which costs about $0.40 per pound, and you can see one reason that it isn’t more commonly used. But this past spring spring Dow Chemical announced it would partner with a Turkish company to produced “cost-effectice, high-volume” carbon fibre overseas. The company expects this will be the stuff used in high-volume car manufacturing, so costs of the material should start coming down.

As with other advanced materials the likely path to adoption will see some large panels built with carbon fibre first, before use becomes widespread. Carbon fibre is ready to move beyond trim. This seems to be the case with the Mercedes-AMG GT, which is coming out with a carbon fibre roof. The carbon fibre roof will only be on so-called Edition One models, but it’s definitely a sign of increasing use. Swapping out a chunk of steel for carbon fiber will have great effect on overall weight, so there are real performance advantages, especially for auto manufacturers looking to reduce weight by whatever means necessary.

Looking further out, innovations in manufacturing also promise reductions in cost. Using infrared heat rather than autoclaves can shorten manufacturing time by one-fifth. Low viscosity resins will also shorten manufacturing and repair cycles.

As with any advance in materials the shift to the new fibres will be driven by weight concerns. As it is, the price of gasoline is relatively low right now. But if the price of gasoline rises again, even more pressure will land on automakers to reduce weight and increase fuel efficiency. 

Eventually it could be used to make car parts that are stronger and lighter than steel and aluminum parts. BMW is using carbon fibre in structural parts like roof pillars and door frames. 

Where does the industry go after carbon fibre becomes common? Carbon nanotubes, apparently. But that’s a whole other story. 

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