Aluminum has become an established part of today’s mainstream auto industry. As pickup fans know, it’s even used in some full-size truck beds. That’s because companies have been able to develop aluminum alloys that are just as strong as steel, but significantly lighter. A lighter vehicle can then use a smaller, more fuel-efficient engine to achieve the same performance.
But there’s another new material working its way into the mainstream, and it could make an even bigger impact. This stuff is eight times stronger than aluminum and 1.5 times lighter. Unsurprisingly, the material with these magical properties was created by a wizard.
It’s carbon fiber, first invented in 1879 by Thomas Edison (aka, the Wizard of Menlo Park).
What Is Carbon Fiber?
Although automotive terms can sometimes be confusing, this one isn’t. Carbon fiber literally refers to fibers made mostly from the element carbon. For Edison’s early examples, the starting point was cotton or bamboo. He heated small pieces of those organic, carbon-based materials to use as filaments in his early incandescent light bulbs. The heating process baked out most of the non-carbon atoms, and a small carbon fiber was left over. Because tungsten ended up being a better fit for Edison’s bulbs, carbon-fiber technology had to wait about 80 years for the next big advance.
That began with light-bulb filaments as well. But by 1958, scientist Roger Bacon had discovered that under certain conditions, starting with certain carbon-based materials, high-strength carbon “whiskers” could be created during the heating process. Over the years, scientists were able to create essentially carbon-fiber yarn that could be weaved together into sheets.
Generally speaking, when folks talk about “carbon fiber” being used in today’s cars, they’re talking about carbon-fiber strands that are woven and set into resin. Next, this carbon-fiber composite, sometimes called carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP), is shaped as needed. Once the resin sets, you’ve got a lightweight automotive component that gets its strength from the same element that makes up a diamond.
What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Carbon Fiber?
The key benefit of carbon fiber is its impressive strength-to-weight ratio. Beyond its advantages compared to aluminum, which we mentioned above, carbon fiber is five times lighter and 10 times stronger than typical steel. It looks pretty cool, too.
The major disadvantage of carbon fiber is its price. When the first new-style carbon fibers were created in the lab in the late 1950s, their inventor estimated they cost $10 million per pound. That has come down quite a bit in recent years. In fact, some experts predict that the price of carbon fiber will drop to roughly $4.50 per pound by 2020. In comparison, though, the cost of steel is about $0.18 per pound.
The benefit with carbon fiber comes directly from its lightness and strength. That is, it can deliver enough long-run savings in efficiency and durability to make up for the disadvantage in pricing.
Also, the cost of carbon fiber should continue to fall as automakers increase their focus on the manufacturing side of the business. BMW, for example, has invested $300 million in a joint venture to operate the world’s largest carbon-fiber plant in Moses Lake, Wash.
What Is Carbon Fiber Used for in Cars?
Carbon fiber is still more commonly found in premium cars and trucks, but those vehicles can use it just about from top to bottom. This is no exaggeration, either, since there are vehicles with everything from carbon-fiber roofs to carbon-fiber wheels. The former category includes the Chevrolet Corvette, which offers a removable carbon-fiber roof panel for open-air driving. Meanwhile, Chevy’s crosstown rival launched the industry’s first mass-produced carbon-fiber wheels for the most recent 2016 Ford Shelby GT350R Mustang.
The Corvette and the Mustang, and many other sports cars, also offer carbon-fiber body pieces that include hoods, rear wings and other aero updates. In the high-efficiency BMW i3, the German brand takes advantage of its carbon-fiber factory for nearly all body panels. As a result, the curb weight of the original i3 was a relatively light 2,755 pounds. If BMW had relied on conventional steel to build the car, it would have weighed 3,306 pounds, about 20 percent more.
The i3 and a few exotic supercars also feature carbon fiber under the skin. It’s part of the protective passenger cell for the i3, and for the Lamborghini Aventador, carbon fiber is used for almost the entire platform. In the cabin, carbon-fiber trim can dress up lux models ranging from the Cadillac ATS to the Land Rover Range Rover.
History also may be repeating itself in the pickup segment. In the same way the Ford F-150 marked a breakthrough with its aluminum bed, GM is investigating using carbon fiber for a similar purpose in its upcoming trucks.