Carbon Fiber’s New Hope for the Automotive Industry

Automotive

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Carbon fiber has not caught on with the automotive industry to the extent that many had anticipated a decade ago. And with graphene showing a lot of promise, there are some who think carmakers will never go all-in on carbon fiber. But there is hope. The recent discovery of one particular property of carbon fiber, a property not previously known, could have carmakers flocking to carbon fiber in the very near future.

What is that property? The ability of carbon fibers to store electrical energy. It already has electric vehicle (EV) designers dreaming of the possibilities of reducing both car weight and battery costs by combining traditional batteries with carbon fiber bodies and frames.

A recent study out of Chalmers University of Technology is great news for proponents of EVs. Researchers at the Swedish university have used carbon fibers as battery electrodes to store energy directly. It is a tremendous breakthrough that offers real hope for automotive use of carbon fiber.

It Has Always Been the Cost

Rock West Composites, a Salt Lake City company that specializes in carbon fiber and other composite materials, says the problem with carbon fiber in the automotive industry has always been cost. There is little doubt that the material is far superior to both steel and aluminum in its strength and weight properties, but the cost of producing carbon fiber is quite expensive.

Fabrication doesn’t come cheaply either. So when you add the cost of creating carbon fiber tow and sheets to the cost of fabricating those materials into usable car parts, manufacturers simply cannot justify the total expense. But give carmakers the ability to realize their dreams of a commercially viable EV that will not break the bank and you have a game-changer.

Consider that cost is also an issue for electric vehicles. It is not so much frames, bodies, and motors; it’s the cost of the batteries. In order to equip a car with enough batteries to make it competitive against a gasoline or diesel rival, you have to build a car so expensive that the average consumer cannot afford it. Carbon fiber could change that.

A Multi-Functional Material

Using carbon fiber to store energy is a remarkable achievement. According to the Chalmers University of Technology researchers, what they have done is demonstrate that carbon fiber is a multi-functional material capable of redefining everything from automotive manufacturing to aerospace.

Lead researcher Leif Asp explained that incorporating their ideas into EV design would mean an entirely different way of looking at carbon fiber. Rather than a carbon fiber car body simply being “a load-bearing element,” as Asp described it, the car body would also act as a battery.

Asp and his team believe the same properties could lead to a redesign of the carbon fiber car body. For example, it could be designed to harvest kinetic energy for powering sensors and conductors. Asp beliefs this new way of looking at carbon fiber can reduce weight by up to 50% — both for cars and airplanes – by redesigning electrical systems around the energy capabilities of carbon fibers.

EVs Closer Than Ever

Perhaps the most important aspect of the research is the fact that it now means commercially viable EVs may be closer than ever. Carmakers now have a legitimate reason to figure out more cost-effective ways to mass-produce carbon fiber car bodies. In the race to see who’s going to produce the first commercially viable EV, the fact that carbon fibers can act as batteries could very well be the impetus for making it happen.

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