Carbon fiber -- once so costly that it was the preferred material only for fighter planes and supercars -- is catching the attention of weight-conscious automakers.
Carbon fiber's cost is falling dramatically, thanks to production advances that let suppliers speed the material's difficult, and costly, curing process.
The technological breakthrough that makes carbon-fiber auto parts more affordable may come from a process used to make carbon-fiber golf clubs. More on that later.
While carbon fiber does not match steel or aluminum for cost, it is about 50 percent lighter than conventional steel, and 30 percent lighter than aluminum. Its strength and weight make it ideal for electric cars, sports cars and luxury cars.
Consider these developments:
- BMW AG's i3 electric car, which debuts in 2013, will have a carbon-fiber shell. BMW will build about 30,000 units a year, according to Automotive News Europe estimates.
- Audi AG plans to expand use of carbon fiber beyond the R8 and RS3 supercars to higher-volume models as part of its partnership with German industrial group Voith GmbH.
- General Motors may expand use of carbon fiber in the next-generation Chevrolet Corvette, which debuts as a 2014 model.
- Daimler AG formed a joint venture with Japan's Toray Industries Inc. to make carbon-fiber components for the 2012 Mercedes-Benz SL.
- A joint venture between Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A. and Boeing Co. has slashed the cost of carbon fiber used in a monocoque, or unibody construction, for the Sesto Elemento concept car. In effect, Lamborghini has become a carbon-fiber laboratory for its corporate parent, Volkswagen AG.