Soon We’ll All Be Carbon-based Lifeforms
I’m a cycling fiend – have been since high school. Every 10 years or so I buy a new road bike and last week I picked up my new rocket – a high-end German carbon-fiber bike. Everything on it is carbon: frame, seatpost, handlebars, stem, crankarms…I’m going to have to get carbon fiber feet and teeth to ride this thing. It weighs a little more than 15 pounds, which is getting down to an almost irreducibly light weight until they can make a bike out of air. It weighs about half as much as the bike I rode in college.
It got me thinking about the role of carbon fiber materials in the green revolution. For more than 20 years cars have been getting heavier. My old 1984 GTI weighed 2050 pounds – the latest GTI weighs 3,300 pounds. So even as engines become more efficient and less polluting, the pork factor limits greater fuel savings.
But what if you could replace a substantial part of the metal in a car with carbon fiber? Carbon fiber can be three times stronger than steel, with one-quarter the weight. Formula One racecars already make extensive use of carbon fiber, but in that sport price is irrelevant, and the “Tub” – the structure of a car can cost close to a million dollars.
GM is experimenting with carbon fiber to replace steel and fiberglass in its high-end Corvette ZR1.
The problem, of course, is the material and manufacturing cost for carbon fiber. The material has been around since the late 1950s, where it started as an advanced project for the British Royal Air Force. Slowly, over decades, it’s moved into military and sports applications where low weight and high strength trump cost. It’s even showing up in some parts of costly sports and luxury cars. For now, though, the manufacturing process is too costly to make your standard cheapo subcompact with a carbon fiber frame and body. Today the material cost of carbon fiber is $8 to $10 per pound, and that doesn’t include the high cost of fashioning it into exotic shapes. Researchers suggest that if that price dropped to about $3/pound car companies would use a million tons of carbon fiber, replacing about four million tons of metals.
But let’s jump ahead a few years and assume that the development cycle reduces carbon fiber costs to something closer to steel or aluminum. (Remember, years ago aluminum was a rare, expensive and exotic material. Now we make disposable cans out of it). Picture a roomy but small car with a carbon fiber unibody, a carbon fiber body shell that provides additional structural rigidity and safety, and perhaps a small turbodiesel engine as part of a hybrid drivetrain, or a pure electric drivetrain (this would be much more practical is a car that weighs half as much as the electrics of today). This car could weigh much less – perhaps 1200 to 1500 pounds in total. Obviously it would never rust. The basic structure could accept plug-in modular upgrades of systems like the engine, battery and transmission. It could get, what? 90 miles per gallon? More than 100? Easily.
With less than half the power of today’s standard sedan it would be quicker. With a smaller drivetrain it would be roomier. Its emissions could be reduced by 10 to 20 percent, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratories. I have no doubt this will happen in the next 10-15 years.
Back in the 1990s our agency represented a company that was building a hybrid-electric drivetrain under contract to Chrysler. That system used a high-speed flywheel instead of batteries for energy storage. It was part of the Partnership for a Next Generation Vehicle, which was a government program. It was great fun doing PR for this project and we generated tremendous amounts of coverage.
Most of that exotic technology – except for the flywheel – is in the one million hybrids on American roads today. So the pace of technology adoption in cars actually can be pretty fast. Today carbon fiber is in the fairly expensive frame of my new bike. But I’m sure that in 10 years, when it’s time for my next bike, I’ll be driving to the bike shop in a super-lightweight, super-efficient, non-polluting carbon fiber car.
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