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What the future holds!

BMW I3 monocoque
BMW's i3 will use carbon fibre in its monocoque structure with significant weight savings. How long until the material becomes common place amongst manufacturers, replacing steel and aluminium with serious financial implications for the auto recycler.
Changes in automotive design and technology will create serious issues for the auto recycler in the future. In this article we highlight the potential carbon fibre has to impact on your business.

We may hear a great deal about carbon fibre in formula one cars but it isn’t something we have to consider currently when it comes to road cars. That could be about to change with BMW’s recent developments for their i3 and i8 projects. Not only is the i3’s monocoque primarily made of carbon fibre but the company has also shown off a set of ultra light, carbon fibre wheel rims.

OK, this is the latest technology and won’t be hitting your yards for a few year’s to come but from the car manufacturers’ standpoint, where ever increasing efficiencies have to be found, carbon fibre offers big benefits. Apart from the incredible strength that comes with carbon fibre, weight savings of 40% over aluminium and an incredible 60% over steel means much lighter vehicles. And it doesn’t stop there, a lighter vehicle requires less power to move it and less force to stop it so you then get a further saving from smaller, cheaper components in the drive train and suspension. Those alloy wheel replacements will also reduce the unsprung weight giving rotating mass advantages.

All this weight saving will mean greater ranges for electric cars which is a must if they are to make any real inroads into the car market. A recent report by the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) based on government research showed that sixty-nine per cent of drivers would not consider buying an electric car, with the most important factors deterring motorists being recharging (40 per cent), the distanced travelled on a battery (39 per cent) and cost (33 per cent). Currently, less than one per cent of drivers already own an electric car or van. Five per cent said they were thinking about buying an electric car and eighteen per cent had thought about purchasing an electric vehicle but later changed their mind.

What BMW is hoping to address with the use of carbon fibre is that 39% of individuals who see the distance travelled as the main factor for not going electric. It will be interesting to see how much improvement in range the weight savings bring (we shall look at the affects of electric vehicles on the industry in a future issue).

The downside with carbon fibre is its cost and to combat this, BMW has developed a carbon plastic material that uses all the carbon fibre waste and off cuts. This waste is cut up, mixed with plastic and used in a conventional plastic-moulding machine. The material is stronger and lighter than any thermoplastic. They have developed a dash support structure with this material which could replace magnesium with a weight saving in the region of 20 percent. They can also use it in areas such as seat frames and because they’re usually made from heavier metals than magnesium, the weight saving is even greater. This then compensates for the costs where structural carbon fibre is to be used.
So where will this leave the auto recycler?
As we mentioned earlier, this is cutting edge stuff and won’t be an issue in the near future but once one manufacturer forges ahead with a major improvement, then the others soon follow and the technologies become cheaper. Process changes could see a reduction of 30-40% in production cost. The big issue for the dismantler is two fold. On the one side, this will bring a big reduction in the metals content of the shells so creating a loss of income there, but then we also have a high volume of material that has no value, in fact a negative value. Carbon fibre may be expensive to manufacture but this is a thermosetting material so cannot be recycled like polythene or nylon. And the income from all those alloy wheels will go the same way to be replaced with negative value material. Carbon fibre does not look so good when looked at from the auto recyclers’ end of the process.

The picture may not be quite so bleak. After all, BMW say they have created a new thermoplastic using the waste and there are constant developments to make carbon fibre itself a thermoplastic rather than thermosetting material. No-one has achieved this yet but time is on our side. We can only hope that once carbon fibre becomes mainstream in vehicles, there will be a value attached to it as a secondary material, but as of now that isn’t the case - watch this space!

November 2014

Latest stories

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