Despite the worldwide automotive composites market recently being quantified at a value of $18.51 billion, the forecast is for this to grow substantially before 2022. Whilst BMW, Fiat, PSA and VW all lay claim to being industry leading vehicle manufacturers in the automotive composite market, the argument will prove a lot more difficult in subsequent years.
There is massive pressure by stringent emissions regulations for automotive manufacturers to develop lighter weight vehicles. This can be most easily achieved through utilizing more and more advanced composite materials. By shifting its focus to light-weight materials, composites such as carbon fibre are much sought after. They provide a suitable replacement to steel and aluminum, but most importantly further enable higher fuel efficiency.
Up until recently, carbon fibre was deemed to only be a high-end, luxury model attribute. The first serious attempt at using carbon composites in a mid-segment vehicle was on BMW’s i3. The BMW i3 is an electric car which means that the use of carbon fibre makes even more economic sense because lithium-ion batteries are expensive. Less weight means a smaller battery pack, which provides a worthwhile cost-benefit to using carbon fibre. However, the incorporation of carbon fibre into lower-end vehicles, such as BMW’s electric i3, has brought new standards and knowledge in the production of this composite material.
In order to satisfy demand, novel materials like carbon fibre need to be demonstrated at a commercial scale. According to a study by Scientific Research, there are a number of organizations worldwide actively working to achieve success on this front. They have demonstrated that using cellulose and carbon fibre composites, instead of traditional materials like steel, could reduce the weight of a vehicle by 15 to 30%. Such innovation at a commercial scale would make light weighting a logical game-changer in the reduction of embodied energy emissions of vehicles.
With the UK government in May providing £1.7 million in funds to UK research and innovation teams investigating automotive grade carbon fibre, there is an urgency on a national and international level to deliver commercially viable materials on a mass scale.