Ford is partnering with The Dow Chemical Company to develop carbon fiber composites for use in mainstream vehicles. By using the lightweight materials in future vehicles, Ford hopes it could trim as much as 750 pounds from new cars and trucks by 2020.
Because carbon fiber composites are lighter than steel but just as strong, they can help reduce vehicle weight and thus improve fuel economy. Ford says that reducing weight is especially important on electric and plug-in hybrid cars, as doing so can increase those cars' driving range.
Dow and Ford will work to develop a reliable, high-volume source of automotive-grade carbon fiber, and also to development manufacturing solutions to bring the material's cost down. Currently, carbon fiber is so expensive that it is typically only used on expensive sports or super cars. Dow already has a partnership in place with Turkish carbon-fiber manufacturer AKSA.
The innovations in carbon fiber use will go hand-in-hand with development of more efficient Ford powertrains. While downsized engines and hybrid drivetrains can more efficiently convert fuel to energy, Ford chief technical officer Paul Mascarenas says that "mass reduction and improved aerodynamics are keys to reducing the workload" on those powertrains.
Ford says that if the research and development project is successful, carbon fiber components may be seen on Ford vehicles "in the latter part of this decade" to help traditional cars meet stricter economy requirements, and electric cars provide increased driving ranges.
Ford is far from the only automaker to pursue carbon fiber as a way to reduce weight and increase efficiency. Volkswagen and BMW have both tried to gain control of SGL Group, the world's largest manufacturer of carbon fiber, as they plan to launch cars made from the new material. BMW, for instance, plans to use carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) extensively in the upcoming i3 electric car and i8 plug-in hybrid, while Volkswagen’s ultra-efficient XL1 program is hinged on the material.