Ford MotorCo. is entering into a joint venture with carbon-fiber manufacturer DowAksa, a move aimed at more widely using the costly material to reduce the weight of vehicles and meet tougher emissions standards.
The Dearborn, Mich., auto maker took a leadership position in the use of advanced materials last year when it released an aluminum-bodied F-150 pickup truck. Ford’s highest volume and most profitable vehicle, the 2015 F-150 achieved higher fuel-economy as a result of the design change.
DowAksa is a joint venture between Dow Chemical Co. and Istanbul-based Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii AS, an acrylic fiber maker. Auto makers including Ford have been gradually increasing the use of carbon fiber, long considered to be an expensive material and hard to mass produce. Currently, carbon fiber is largely used to make engine hoods and body panels on sports cars, but higher-volume vehicles increasingly are employing it, too.
A recent survey published by trade publication Plastics News estimates carbon fiber for automotive costs between $10 and $12 a pound, compared with the publication’s estimate of less than $1 for the same amount of steel. The cost of carbon fiber for automotive is down one-third from the price a decade ago, the publication said, but needs to be cut in about half to be commercially viable for widespread adoption.
Ford has said its next-generation GT supercar will be made largely of carbon fiber. BMW AG is using carbon fiber for the body structure of its small i3 electric car.
The material is 50% lighter than conventional steel and 30% lighter than aluminum, according to the American Chemistry Council. Steve Russell, the vice president of plastics for the American Chemistry Council, says use of 3-D printing and other innovations have helped lower the cost of manufacturing with carbon fiber, and reduced the amount of time it takes to develop components made of the material.
Plastics currently compose about 50% of a vehicle’s volume, but only 10% of a vehicle’s weight. Components made from steel, aluminum or other metals often contribute more weight.
Tighter fuel-economy rules scheduled to be phased in over the next decade are forcing car companies to make slimmed-down cars and trucks. Known as “lightweighting,” the process has accelerated the use of smaller engines and other, lighter components.
In a news release, Ford said its aim is to “bring carbon fiber components to the broader market.” The companies will develop cheaper grades of carbon fiber and open the door to a potential manufacturing relationship.
The partnership comes on the heels of a widely cited IHS automotive study that said total weight in cars must be reduced by 30% to meet federal fuel-economy standards set for 2025. IHS expects the average car to use 75% more plastic by 2020, and expects the auto industry’s use of carbon fiber to nearly triple by 2030.