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Bodyworks: The Slow Move to Carbon Fiber Cars

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First it came to Formula 1, then to super cars, and now BMW has become the first manufacturer to embrace the ultralight composite on a mass produced series of models.

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The i3 city car has become the first mass produced carbon fiber model, with extensive use of the composite for the cockpit, body panels, roof, hood, and seats. The BMW i8 sports car, coming later this summer, will follow suit, and the new 7-series will employ the composite extensively.

The bold move on behalf of BMW represents the first example of a car employing a carbon-fiber cockpit, and one of the most extensive examples of carbon fiber bodywork. There’s also word that Toyota and GM are working on carbon-fiber more extensively.

The ultralight composite is difficult to manufacture, however, and this has long been the prohibiting factor when it comes to its implementation. With more investment in manufacturing techniques, it has become substantially easier to produce carbon fiber cheaply. New methods of molding and forging, combined with improved resin injection, are being developed across the globe. Carbon-fiber may fall to just a third of its original price by the end of this year. With three times the tensile strength of steel and about a third the weight, the composite, consisting of interwoven carbon nano-fibers, may just be making its big breakthrough.

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Still, there are some who aren’t quite sold, including performance powerhouse, Ferrari. About a year ago, the Maranello-based sports car manufacturer made clear their intentions to eschew the new composite in favor of what it saw as a better alternative- lightweight aluminum. Carbon-fiber also likely won’t be practical for an indefinite time period for certain chassis, suspension, and unibody components, which would keep steel and aluminum around for a while.

Despite the reservations of a few, it appears as though the carbon-fiber march has picked up momentum. Now that the composite has attracted the attention of the mass production automotive giants of the world, almost everyone is investing in the new material.

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Toyota, Volkswagen, GM, are all jumping the gun to catch up with BMW’s lead. As the Green Revolution continues, carbon-fiber will be at home, with automakers striving to cut weight in the name of both fuel efficiency and performance. The ultralight composite will probably even be making its way into our daily drivers by the end of the decade.

See more auto technology content at www.speedville.com.

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