In recent years using carbon fiber material used for sports cars and race cars has gradually increased. It has become quite a major player in shaping the future of automobiles. Carbon fiber was invented by Thomas Edison in 1879. Edison used it in his light bulb endeavor and it would take a long time until carbon fiber’s full potential was realized. Even today, we have yet to unlock the full capabilities of the material. The real question is why we humans are using carbon fiber to begin with and why, more importantly, are we using it on our vehicles? Is it something that can harm our environment or is it something that can help save us? Let’s find out.
What is Carbon Fiber, Actually?
Time for a small science lesson. Carbon is an element. It’s something that makes up diamonds, graphite, gold, and more. When you combine carbon with a polymer and you weave them together you get carbon fiber. It makes a sheet like material that is flexible. It’s an easily manipulable material, which makes it easy to mold into any sort of shape you could desire. To keep the shape, resin is added into the mix and then it’s a waiting game for everything to set. When it gets to this form it’s called carbon fiber reinforced plastic or CFRP for short. Using the CFRP has been a game changer for several reasons, but whenever we humans find something good there’s usually a catch. The same goes with using carbon fiber. Weighing out the pros and cons is crucial for any company who wants to invest in a relatively new technology.
Let’s start with the cons. It’s important to set the expectation bar low so we can be happily surprised when it comes to the advantages bit. The biggest problem with carbon fiber since it’s origins is how expensive it is. Price is an issue, because it means it’s not accessible to the every day consumer. Even today, the price per pound is about $4.40 while steel is about 89 cents. Not only is this a problem for consumers, it’s a major issue for businesses who want to utilize the product. This is why it takes extremely large companies to almost monopolize on the product before anyone else. Airline companies, and race car brands such as those who race in Formula 1, neither of which benefits the average person.
Even larger than expense, is the energy it takes to produce carbon fiber, it takes a lot more than it does to make steel. Meaning, it spews a significant amount more of greenhouse gasses than steel. For those of you who don’t know, that’s a bad thing for our planet. It also takes more man power, which costs money; and the process is a lot slower than steel and other metals, which costs even more money. Clearly, money is a major problem for companies wanting to use the product. One could argue that this is the reason why most race car brands only build some car pieces out of carbon fiber, because it cost too much.
The last problem with carbon fiber is that it’s basically plastic. Not that flimsy straw type of plastic, but the strongest type of plastic ever. Thus, it’s abbreviation CFRP. Being plastic means that it’s not biodegradable. It’s not environmentally friendly. When someone stops using it, it doesn’t corrode or rust into nothing, it lasts a lot longer. So any scrapped production of carbon fiber could and does end up in some heap somewhere and doesn’t really ever go away. Kind of like the massive amounts of plastic that floats around in the ocean and seems near impossible to get rid of. Except this is land where 99.9% of humans live and we can’t say “out of site, out of mind”. However, this is not the end of carbon fiber’s story.
The best thing about carbon fiber is that it is 100% recyclable. While, the initial energy it takes to create carbon fiber is major, recycling any unused bits of the material can be used again and takes less energy to do so. This means that if someone didn’t like how their mold came out, they could melt it down and start over. Any shavings or bits that aren’t used don’t have to sit on the floor or in a heap outside somewhere, they can be melted down and big a new life. Car got into an accident and is too damaged to drive again? Not to worry, it doesn’t have to rust in a junkyard. You know, the recycle life.
Strength and weight have everything to do with why carbon fiber is being used on fast moving vehicles. It is 5 times lighter than steel and 10 times stronger than steel. We’ve already talked about its longevity and durability, but these are, again, major factors as to why brands are slowly and steadily replacing steel car bits with carbon fiber. Why is it important that vehicles are lighter and stronger? For those of you who love electric cars, this is extremely important. With a lighter car, it takes a smaller battery to use, which makes sense for any economical vehicle. The lighter the vehicle the easier the engine has to work and makes better fuel consumption.
Another fantastic function of carbon fiber is when it is used as safety pieces within the car itself. Because carbon fiber isn’t like normal plastic and isn’t like steel, it is extremely difficult to brake when in an accident. Some F1 cars and race cars are using carbon fiber to reinforce the bumper, doors, or hood. Increasing the safety of occupants in the car has made it very desirable for consumers to latch on to the technology as soon as possible. Another unique bit of carbon fiber is the use it has for motorcycle rider gear and helmets. It provides a key factor in safety of any automobile operator.
Some companies are making the beds of their pick-up trucks out of carbon fiber, to increase their load amount, enhancing their vehicles’ strength and durability. Other companies such as BMW are looking for how to utilize the weight of the car so it can go faster. By replacing their cars’ roofs with carbon fiber sheets, they are cutting the roof weight in half. It gives the car a better center of gravity, creating better handling, and even faster to drive.
In the End…
While it has been years since Edison found carbon fiber, we still have yet to fully utilize this precious material. With so many companies embracing the technology it won’t be long until we can see carbon fiber vehicles available for the consumers who can afford it. As for the environmental side of things, it’s difficult to say whether or not this can save us, but if not used properly it could cause more harm and good. Something to think about.
We do have two vehicles available for purchase at AlphaCars right now that have these unique carbon fiber features. The 2015 BMW M3 and the 2012 Bentley Continental GT. The BMW has the carbon fiber roof, while the Bentley has used multiple facets of the material both inside and outside of the vehicle.