Stiff competition for a stiff material
"The biggest hurdles are cost, throughput and recycling," said Ross Kozarsky, senior analyst at Lux Research, a technology research and advisory firm. This is especially important to the automotive sector, both consumer and commercial, where reducing an automobile's weight by 10 percent yields a 6 to 8 percent fuel efficiency improvement, according to DOE.
Because the industry is so large, trends in making cars can ripple through other segments of the economy, especially when it comes to materials.
In addition, the market for cars, trucks and buses is very sensitive to price, so even a tiny cost increase has to have a substantial payoff in terms of efficiency, Kozarsky explained. Automobile turnover is also much faster than it is for aircraft, so manufacturers have to design and fabricate new carbon fiber parts on very large scales year after year, a tedious and expensive process. On a factory floor, workers will have to prepare thousands of components daily. "The processing time for the part probably needs to come down below one minute," he said.
Automakers are evaluating alternatives as well. "Carbon fiber is not operating in a vacuum," Kozarsky added. Other materials, like magnesium, aluminum and titanium, are comparable to carbon fiber in certain roles with the added benefits of lower costs, larger production scales and quicker manufacturing.
As a result, "carbon fiber is likely to be somewhat of a niche player," said Kevin Lowery, director of corporate communications at the aluminum company Alcoa Inc. "Sure, you're going to see it win a piece of an application here and a piece of an application there. But is it the first thing people will jump to when they think about building a vehicle? It probably won't."
At the other end of the equation, there are concerns about recycling. According to Alcoa, 95 percent of the aluminum used in a car gets recycled. Steel also has a high recycling rate. Carbon fiber, by contrast, can't be melted down and is very difficult to reuse. BMW Group and Boeing established an agreement last year to pioneer ways to reclaim carbon fiber parts at the end of their useful life, but today most carbon fiber ends up in a landfill.
Industrial experience is another factor in carbon fiber proliferation. People have built cars out of steel and aluminum for 100 years and know how to use those materials, Lowery said. Manufacturers will need to invest more in workforce development around carbon fiber technology before it becomes viable.
Oak Ridge's McGetrick said it would take at least five to 10 years for these cheaper carbon fibers to hit the mainstream automotive sector. But, ultimately, "we think that there's a potential market explosion," she said.
Other countries seem to think so as well. "You have big materials players on every continent," Kozarsky said. "We are starting to see a lot of activity in China for carbon fiber."
In the next generation of carbon fiber composites, there will be stiff competition.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500