Colorado think tank tackles global 'weirding'

September 13, 2013

Collaboration is an increasingly important enabler in the expensive and difficult road to commercialization of carbon composite parts for cars in an effort to reduce vehicle weight and lessen dependence on fossil fuels.

One interesting example is an undertaking being organized by a Colorado think tank called the Rocky Mountain Institute. As part of a project it calls "Reinventing Fire", the Institute last year launched in Detroit an inititaive "to drive a transition to widespread carbon fiber adoption in the automotive industry. This event represented the first time that key decision makers and technology drivers across the automotive and carbon fiber industries convened to tackle barriers and develop the pathway to scale adoption of automotive carbon fiber composites."

Seed money is coming from philanthropic organizations looking for solutions to climate change, said Robert Hutchinson, managing director of research and collaboration for the Institute, in an interview at the 13th annual Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition in Novi, MI.

The specific project is development of a carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) door inner for a 2018 model year car. "Carbon composite parts already in production are for limited volumes," said Hutchinson. "We're shooting for a minimum of 50,000 parts a year."

One of the first tasks was lining up Antony Dodworth, a design engineer with experience in designing door parts made from carbon fiber. Next on board were BASF, a major resin producer, and Plasan Carbon Composites, a CFRP parts processor and process innovator now partly owned by Toray, a carbon fiber powerhouse.

Next up is arguably the hardest step--lining up an OEM or Tier One willing to offer an actual production part. It's a way for a player to get serious skin in the game without committing to one of the large-scale vertically integrated multi-company plays that are also emerging to develop carbon composite parts.

Hutchinson admits that parallel work by other groups is also essential. Primary may be reduction of the cost of carbon fiber. The auto industry is still driven by costs and CFRP is really not yet cost competitive, although a systems cost case can be made, particularly for corporate fleets, which understand incremental decreases in fuel costs. Systems engineers who understand the value of lower vehicle weight to reduced braking and other costs also get the concept.

During the interview, Hutchinson kept one eye on text messages from family members affected by flash floods this week in Colorado. "The weathermen call it global warming," he said. "I call it global 'weirding'".

Pretty soon, we may have to start factoring in "global weirding" to the systems cost of not using carbon composites.







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