In a recent press release, industry giant Ford announced it would be collaborating with DowAksa and the U.S. Department of Energy to “develop manufacturing innovations in automotive-grade carbon fiber for use in future products.” DowAksa is currently the carbon fiber industry’s only large-scale, full-service, fully-integrated solution provider, and along with Ford will be part of the freshly formed Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation. This coalition, which was created by the U.S. government, is aiming to make vehicles lighter so that it may achieve “greater fuel efficiency, performance, and capability” while overcoming what Ford calls “the high cost and limited availability of carbon fiber.”
This has been a program Ford has been working on for quite a while, tracing back to 2012, and now that the Detroit-based juggernaut has the backing of the U.S. government the entire program is sure to see a heavy influx of funding as well as support from politicians. Since carbon fiber has the ability to drastically reduce vehicle weight without sacrificing strength, the push for turning this space-age “magic material” into a financially feasible option is undoubtedly exciting for all of the tech nerds within the automotive ring.
Once classified as a product fit only for the likes of spaceships and Formula 1 cars, carbon fiber has gained both in popularity and availability in the last few decades as advances in manufacturing have allowed the product to be developed on a larger scale, thus making it far more affordable. This uniquely woven product can come in a variety of different strengths and it has the ability to be made to be as stiff or as flexible as needed depending on its intended purpose.
Patrick Blanchard, Ford supervisor for the Composites Group claims “the flexibility of the technology allows us to develop materials for all vehicle subsystems across the product line – resulting in a weight savings of more than [50%] compared to steel.” But what are the downsides to this product? There have to be at least a few. And why haven’t we been using carbon fiber all along if auto manufacturers have known about it this whole time?
The main reason why we haven’t seen a ton of carbon-clad commuter cars on the road is because carbon fiber components are extremely expensive, time consuming, and difficult to manufacture on a large scale. In its simplest form, genuine carbon fiber parts are made-up of polymers bound together by a series of carbon fiber weaves, and are often layed by hand. As the carbon fiber is layered over the polymer base it is forced to cure into a particular desired shape, and once the product is fully cured it is then transformed into a lightweight and extremely strong product. The hardened insides are now protected by a mesh-like carbon shell that shields the polymer core from the elements. From there the product can either be glazed, thus giving it a “wet” appearance, or it can be left “dry” so that it may have a scaly, snake-like texture.
So what Ford probably plans to do is find a way to use various metal body components as molds for a line of carbon goods that look, feel, and work the exact same as their heavy metal counterparts, but only at a fraction of the weight. This suspicion was later confirmed when Ford announced that it was going to start creating lighter vehicles as a major part of the company’s goal to “reduce fuel consumption and exhaust emissions.”
Ford already has a few vehicles that utilize lighter components, like the Fiesta, which uses a high-strength boron steel that is very lightweight. And the redesigned 2015 Ford F-150 now uses military-grade aluminum to increase safety while cutting overall weight by 700 pounds, thus bumping the EPA-estimated 5% increase in fuel economy to a staggering 29% when matched with the proper drivetrain. A concept version of the Ford Fusion also sported a blend of all of the above as aluminum, high-strength boron steel, magnesium, and carbon fiber adorn almost every corner of the car in order to reduce the overall weight of the Fusion to that of a Fiesta. This could be a real game-changer for Ford, as it would signify nearly a 25% cut in curb weight. According to Ford, what is gleaned from this concept has the ability to “springboard light-weighting technologies to a much larger scale of production.”
So how far out are Ford and DowAksa from flooding the market with futuristic “carbon copies” of the cars we all know and love? Well honestly, no one really knows. This kind of thing has never been attempted on such a massive scale, and since every component of a car needs to be measured, fitted, formed, tested, and analyzed, it could be years before we see a carbon car on the showroom floor. But one thing is definitely for sure, and it is that the U.S. government is now 100% behind this project and it has just given the Ford team a massive shot in the arm. So with a bit of luck, and with the government’s backing, both Ford and DowAksa can now work on reducing the overall amount of energy required to produce carbon fiber goods, all while cutting the cost of raw materials, and developing a recycling process that hopefully reduces their “carbon footprint.”
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