Carbon Fiber Composites: Ready for a Mainstream Debut

This is part 1 of a 2 part series. To learn more about BASF's insight and expertise on achieving a 'Class A Finish' on carbon fiber surfaces, please read the following blog post - Carbon Fiber Finishing Techniques for a ‘Class A Finish’.

Vehicles constructed of mixed materials are becoming increasingly common as a result of impending fuel economy and CO2 emissions regulations. Now, more than ever, automakers are paying particular attention to which material is best and how it should be utilized in the vehicle.

Fiber-reinforced composites are ideal and the industry is taking notice. BASF has found that automakers can shave weight off as plastic parts are up to 40 percent lighter than metal.

BASF has found that automakers can shave weight off as plastic parts are up to 40 percent lighter than metal.

In fact, IHS Chemical estimates that by 2020 the average car will incorporate nearly 350 kg of plastics, up from 200 kg in 2014, and the use of carbon fiber in automotive manufacturing will almost triple by 2030.

While carbon fiber is pricier than other materials and requires changes to the supply chain and manufacturing process, it's seeing growth for good reason. It offers a significant stiffness to weight ratio - making it a lightweight option that can hold its own against its metal counterparts.

But, none of this is new...

Automakers have been using carbon fiber for many years but only in smaller applications. Now what was previously reserved for brands like Lamborghini and Ferrari that have lower volume, longer lifecycle production needs, is making its way downstream.

Heightened interest in the material was also spurred by the 2014 launch of the affordable, yet carbon-fiber intensive BMW i3.

As automakers begin working with carbon fiber more extensively, they will realize there are a lot of options to consider:

  1. A thermoset vs. thermoplastic chemistry application
  2. A continuous fiber vs. a chopped fiber material
  3. Resin Transfer Molding vs. pre-impregnation with a resin system process

At BASF, I work closely with carbon companies to help OEMs discover the best suited carbon fiber combination to meet their vehicle needs. And our expertise doesn't end there; coating the material to meet OEM surface appearance requirements poses a challenge, which is why it's currently reserved for unseen parts of the vehicle.

Rob Lyons Senior Manager of Lightweight Composite Technologies within the Performance Materials division at BASF About the Author: Rob Lyons is the senior manager of Lightweight Composite technologies within the Performance Materials division at BASF. Rob is responsible for thermoplastic and thermoset chemistries being developed and optimized for both glass and carbon fiber with a particulate focus on short cycle time processes for high volume automotive applications. Based in Wyandotte, Mich., he participates in a global team dedicated to finding solutions for customers operating in the major regions of the world.