Dawn of the carbon era


The future BMW i3 - © bmw.com

By the end of 2013, BMW will market its i3, the first model of a new eco-friendly mobility: a 100% electric four-door compact car with an aluminum chassis and carbon fiber body. The extremely hard and sturdy super-material has been tested for many years in the aerospace, nautical and race car industries.

So far the only major auto manufacturer to go for it on a large scale, BMW be building the passenger compartment completely (rather than just parts of it) from CFRP, a carbon-fiber-reinforced composite material. Furthermore, the Leipzig plant to assemble BMW i3 shall do so with the clock speed of conventional bodies off the line, instead of the labour-intensive hand completion usual for race cars. Should the Bavarian group master this leap into the carbon age, competitors like Audi, VW and Daimler, are likely to be seen left standing.

Yet to get there, it’s a long way. The world market for carbon fibre is extremely narrow. As a matter of comparison: each year the world processes 1.3 billion tons of metal, 40 million tons of aluminium – and 40,000 tons of carbon fibre. Yet BMW will need more than 30,000 tons yearly. Getting such amounts in custom quality being likely overwhelming for the current suppliers’ logistics, BMW goes another route: autonomous production, in partnership with the specialist SGL Carbon. East of Seattle, in Moses Lake (Washington), they built a brand-new facility, sustainably managed, with a dedicated hydroelectric power plant supplying SGL Automotive Carbon with “green” energy. The goal is to foster the i project’s eco-friendly identity and marketing.

Carbon weighs only half of comparable components of steel, and 30 percent less than aluminum. For BMW i3, this means an overall weight reduction of 300 kgs (660 lbs). Lowering the weight means that the electric car needs less batteries for the same coverage – which again reduces the weight consequently. In addition, lithium-ion cells are extremely expensive. The money saved partly offsets the production of the auto body.

Read more (in German): www.sueddeutsche.de/auto