Examining the fibre of BMW’s carbon scheme

Kevin Hackett looks at BMW's ambitious carbon-fibre production in Moses Lake, United States, the largest of its kind in the world.
BMW has invested heavily in the manufacture of carbon fibre. Courtesy BMW
BMW has invested heavily in the manufacture of carbon fibre. Courtesy BMW

Moses Lake, in the US state of Washington, is a fairly bleak place. Flat, featureless, windy – it’s entirely bereft of the glitz and glamour associated with San Francisco or Los Angeles, which lie a two-hour flight away, and the chances are that you’ve never heard of it. But this industrious backwater is poised to become a major player in the automotive industry because, in a few months’ time, the factory that BMW operates there, in conjunction with the SGL Group, will become the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, having trebled its current annual production to 9,000 tonnes of carbon fibre.

The worldwide demand for carbon fibre is only going to increase, especially as its production becomes more automated and less expensive. The finished material is stronger and lighter than steel, making it ideal for car construction, and BMW is forging ahead with a range of cars built from the stuff. Recently, we took a tour of the company’s new factory in Leipzig, Germany, where the i3 and upcoming i8 models are pieced together – it was immediately apparent that this is no fly-by-night outfit. BMW sees this as the long-term future and has invested untold sums of money to make its new cars lighter and less damaging to the environment. But it’s always good to take a look at the first steps of processes such as this, and that’s where Moses Lake comes to the fore.

Before anyone starts saying that it’s ridiculous to manufacture a material and then ship it half way round the world to build cars that are “environmentally friendly”, it’s worth pointing out that BMW has been doing its homework. Moses Lake, while initially seeming like an odd choice, actually makes environmental and commercial good sense. Carbon-fibre production is extremely energy intensive and Moses Lake happens to be blessed with cheap energy from an always-renewable source: hydro. So the electricity supply is kinder on BMW’s pocket and doesn’t contribute in any way to global warming.

Moses Lake also happens to be home to a highly skilled workforce. Boeing’s factory is not far away and the aerospace industry’s exacting quality standards are required in the making of this incredible material if it’s to be used in car construction. But the process begins farther afield even than here, because the raw material, known in the trade as the precursor (a material based on polyacrylonitrile fibre), is made by another joint venture between SGL and Mitsubishi Rayon, in Otake, ­Japan.

This is shipped (on actual ships) to the US and arrives at the Moses Lake plant in giant crates. The raw precursor material is white and looks like dainty ribbons as it’s fed into the lines that supply giant ovens that heat it and transform its qualities into those so important for strength and durability.

As the precursor strands go through their various baking stages, they briefly emerge, tightly tensioned against their reels before disappearing again into the next ovens. The colour changes with each step of the process, from white to vivid gold to light brown, dark brown and, eventually, black, by which time, it’s fully carbonised and ready to be spooled up onto large reels for shipping to another factory, in Wackersdorf, Germany, where it’s turned into layered textile mats before the Leipzig factory uses it to form the various components and body panels of the new cars.

And still, with all the shipping involved, it’s better for the planet and BMW’s wallet than having all these processes take part in the same place. The facts are all there for checking and if it didn’t all add up then BMW wouldn’t be doing it this way – it’s that simple.

The factory in Moses Lake looks, to the casual observer, like it’s producing some weird sort of artificial wool – and, in a roundabout way, that’s exactly what it is. But when it’s formed, bonded and lacquered, it becomes instantly recognisable as a material that not only reduces weight and adds structural strength, but also saves lives thanks to its rigidity. This fabric is at the heart of the future of car production, according to BMW – who are we to argue with that?

khackett@thenational.ae

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Published: May 15, 2014 04:00 AM

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