The Pros and Cons of Carbon Fiber Car Parts

Carbon fiber makes a classy looking car.
Carbon fiber makes a classy looking car.

Many people have never heard of carbon fiber, but it's an innovation that is not only picking up in steam, but seeping into our everyday lives. From carbon fiber tripods for cameras (that help to minimize vibrations for a clearer picture) to carbon fiber rings (which withstand more than a gold band and looks interesting in the process), you're bound to run into carbon fiber sooner rather than later.

In fact, you've probably already passed a few cars on the road with this feature. While it has yet to be seen everywhere in the automotive industry, just give it a few years! In today's market, many car makers are rolling out cars with carbon fiber parts straight from the factory. Companies like BMW, Audi, and Chevrolet have been taking advantage of the look and strength of carbon fiber, and so should you.

With a gem like carbon fiber that can replace steel, it's bound to be everywhere by the time you are looking for a new car in a few years!

To Put It Not Simply

Carbon fibers are made out of Poluacrylonitryl (PAN). The raw material used to make this include Petroleum and Ammonia, among other things. In an oil refinery, a solution of 2% Propylene is separated from the crude oil and is processed through an ammoxidation process using Ammonia. This creates Acrylonitrile, which when polymerized, creates PAN. It is then pumped, filtered, stretched, bathed, and put through a series of obscene acts to create Filament strands. The filament strands are then woven together to create carbon sheets.

What is Carbon Fiber?

To put it simply, it is a lightweight material that in also very strong. It is made from treated, woven carbon, which are placed in layers and then bonded with resin. It can be shaped into a mold, then cut as needed. There have been many uses for carbon fiber, including making jewelry out of it, cell phone protective cases, and camera tripods. In comparison to steel, it is about twice as strong with only a quarter of the weight. This makes it a lighter weight solution for cars that will not only increase speed, but safety as well.

An example of a carbon fiber car part
An example of a carbon fiber car part | Source

Who's using it?

High end car makers like Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz are all car manufacturers who are using carbon fiber, however there is one company that sees it's future and the future of cars in carbon fiber, and that is BMW.

The new BMW 2014 i3 sports sedan is an excellent example of the use of carbon fiber in car production. In an effort to corner the market in carbon fiber technology, BMW has begun producing it's own carbon fiber for car parts and using it in it's newer cars. The i3 is an electric car that is almost completely made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic - all but for the drive unit and suspension components. It is the first mass-market car to be made out of carbon fiber.

As a result, the i3 is only 2,700 pounds, making it 500 pounds less than the BMW 1 series. The Nissan Leaf, which is the world's top-selling electric car to day, actually weighs 20 percent more than the i3. The benefit of a lighter weight car can be seen in how quickly it can accelerate, as the i3 accelerates to 100 kilometers per hour 4 seconds faster then the Nissan Leaf - 7.2 seconds.

While we have yet to see how successful the i3 will be in markets, we can see how one car company sees carbon fiber as so beneficial, that it would spend a substantial amount of time and resources betting on carbon fiber to be the wave of the future for cars. This is not like when BMW made LED lights the stock lights in their cars - one important feature in the entire performance of a car. They've completely designed a method to mass-produce carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic in, taking three different factories to finish the production process for the materials for their cars.

BMW is not small car company. So when BMW banks on the notion that carbon-fiber is the future of cars when others consider it to be a luxury, one has to wonder what it is about this product that caused a company to invest so much into such a product.

Of course, carbon fiber wouldn't be peaking the interest of auto makers and so many other industries if it just sounded or looked interesting. There are good reasons that carbon fiber is sweeping the nation!

Helps Vehicles Move Faster

Carbon Fiber is used in sports cars and race cars alike for a good reason. Just as jockeys are chosen for being light weight, and thus increasing the speed of their horse, carbon fiber is light enough to increase the speed in a car when the steel is replaced by this material. In fact, using carbon fiber can decrease a cars weight by 60%. It even outdoes aluminum, which some people would claim to be the future of cars, by a 40% decrease in weight.

Carbon Fiber is Stronger

So, how is carbon fiber so darn strong? That is thanks to both the materials as well as the process in which it's made. Carbon is fused together with microscopic crystals in strands parallel to each other, giving it a high strength to volume ratio.

Because of this, Formula race cars are all made with carbon fiber. Speed may be important in a race, but nothing beats safety, and luckily both are provided to racers in one package.

Better Fuel Consumption

Light weight cars don't use as much fuel to get around. Because of this, cars using carbon fiber can have up to a 10% to 20% decrease in emissions. Carbon fiber can also be used in designing a new engine or more efficient electric engines. Hybrid cars wouldn't suffer the fate of being labeled as "too slow" if the dual engines were made of something lighter.

Carbon Fiber is often used for it's intriguing appearance, as well.
Carbon Fiber is often used for it's intriguing appearance, as well.

What Are The Drawbacks?

Of course, nothing can ever be perfect, and carbon fiber is one of those things.

Not Recyclable

Carbon fiber can be praised for making cars more fuel efficient - so that makes it environmentally friendly, right? Unfortunately, it stops being green when the product it's made of stops being useful. Unlike steel, carbon fiber isn't recyclable. Steel can be melted down to re-use, even for the same items they were used for before. Carbon fiber, on the other hand, degrades as it is recycled, and won't be able to be used to the same safety standards expected of newly crafted carbon fiber. If anything, it could probably be made into small, inconsequential things, like license plate. However, as of yet, there is no way to successfully recycle carbon fiber into it's former glory once the product has outlived it's use. And unfortunately, it takes an extremely long time to degrade if it winds up in the landfill.

Expensive

Just ten years ago, carbon fiber was very expensive at about $150 a pound. Compare that to the price of silver at the time, which was around $65 a pound. Today, carbon fiber is now around $10 to $15 a pound, where as silver is now around $20 per ounce. While the demand grows more and more, the price continue to fall, making it more accessible to the average consumer. In fact, BMW hopes that in using carbon fiber more and more, it can bring down the price to aluminum prices.

For today, you will find carbon fiber mostly in expensive luxury cars. Often, they are not even desired for their safety and efficiency, but because of the way that woven carbon fibers looks. It's a very hip look - the new "in" color, if you will - and some people choose cars based on how the carbon fiber hood looks rather than increased safety.

Carbon Fiber is more flexible than steel, but it doesn't mean it's not unbreakable!
Carbon Fiber is more flexible than steel, but it doesn't mean it's not unbreakable!

Repairs Can Be Pricey

Rowan Atkinson, most famously known for playing Mr. Bean, got into a wreck that extensively damaged his McLaren F1. The price to repair it, which included the wrecked carbon fiber, cost well over $1.4 million to repair. While the car is a rare car, and there were other components in the car that made it so costly to repair (such as the gold in the engine bay), a part of that repair price was due to the expensive and repair work on the carbon fiber.

Of course, the fact that the car was a rare car, as well, meant that there were probably no parts to order when it came to replacing the damaged parts. As more and more automakers use carbon fiber in their cars, these parts will become more accessible, driving down the cost of parts. Also, once a majority of cars have carbon fiber, it will be easier for auto shops to repair as they will be doing so on a regular basis.

At the end of the day, most of the problems with carbon fiber can be fixed when it becomes more commonly seen. Perhaps technology will be developed to make carbon fiber recyclable. The price issue will become much less of a problem as the demand gets higher for such a product. At the end of the day, there is a lot of be said about the benefits of carbon fiber. Some day, it won't be limited to just the classy, posh cars!

Does Carbon Fiber Influence Your Car Buying Decisions?

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4 comments

Pkittock profile image

Pkittock 2 years ago from Minnesota

There are a few hypercars that are available with naked carbon fiber bodywork- Bugatti Veyron and Pagani Zonda come to mind. Don't think it'll ever be used in engines, as it doesn't have the same thermodynamic properties as aluminum/iron/etc. For now, the future of carbon fiber is in high-cost sports/supercars and motorsports- the i3 and a few concepts aside, it's too expensive for mainstream consumer cars. As you alluded to, one of the big problems is that you can't repair CF like you can metal- there's no hammering out dents, just panel replacement. Anyway, very good article with a number of good pros and cons! Thought I'd share my thoughts as well.

Regards,

Phil


Sehnonimo profile image

Sehnonimo 2 years ago from San Bruno, CA Author

Ah, okay. I must have misread the source I was looking at that mentioned it could be used in engines! Thank you for the comment! I appreciate the clarifications and your thoughts ^_^


Pkittock profile image

Pkittock 2 years ago from Minnesota

well, I stand corrected- it looks like there are a few people that are experimenting with it on a small scale. I suppose it's possible, but I still think it is unlikely. I could see it being used for engine components (it is already used for components such as intakes) but I'd be surprised if we ever saw a full CF engine. Thanks for bringing that to my attention!


Sehnonimo profile image

Sehnonimo 2 years ago from San Bruno, CA Author

Ah, so I did read that somewhere somewhat correctly! ^_^ You never know what new technologies will bring! Np, and thanks for commenting!

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