Carbon fibre is the new hype in the car-making companies around the world. Many producers across the industry, such as German BMW and Porsche, have already started introducing this composite material with their latest premium models. For those who already own a vehicle and desire to upgrade it, multiple smaller studios or larger firms design and make dedicated carbon fibre parts. Diffusers, spoilers or interior wraps with a distinctive pattern are high on many of the UK motorists' wishlist. Now that we know that it is immensely sought-after, let's find out why.
Carbon-fibre-reinforced polymers (or CFRPs) are composite materials, usually consisting of a polymer resin matrix and a carbon fibre reinforcement. To describe carbon fibre's properties, it is enough to say that the material has the durability of steel and the weight of plastic. That combination results in an incredible strength to weight ratio, allowing for multiple applications, including aerospace, civil engineering, and automotive, especially motorsports. Carbon fibre cars are the most obvious example of the latter. Using CFRPs is a fantastic way of shedding weight in performance vehicles, where every pound lost counts towards the ultimate goal: better acceleration and speed.
The origins and the long road into the automotive industry
Initially, however, CFRP had nothing to do with cars. This material has been around since the 1860s. In the early days its use was scarce, and motorists had to wait an entire century to see its application in the automotive industry. It wasn't until 1971 that the first car-making company started selling their vehicles with optional carbon fibre parts. That firm was the French Citroen, who introduced wheels made of that composite with their new model, a beautiful sports coupe, Citroen SM.
Since then, CFRPs have made their way into the world of high-end, luxury supercars, with the 1996 McLaren F1 as the world's first carbon fibre car. Due to the high cost of this cutting-edge technology, it is virtually unheard of in vehicles other than luxury, sports or premium. With those segments, price isn't usually as important as the weight, the look and most of all, the performance.
One material - many applications
CFRPs aren't used only to make cars lighter and faster but also safer. BMW uses this material in the 7-series to make roof and pillar elements. The intention here is to lower the centre of gravity, making the vehicle more stable in motion and less prone to rollovers. From the same manufacturer comes an electric i3, another notable example with an entire car body made of carbon fibre composite.
Another feature of carbon fibre is that it has a distinctive, unique appearance. You can tell at first glance that a part is made of this specific material. Both the bodywork and interior of high-end vehicles utilise CFRPs to achieve the level of details impossible with the previously used plastics and aluminium. The look is so characteristic that many manufacturers offer faux CFRP elements made of various types of less expensive plastics imitating the sleek surface of carbon fibre car parts.
Many car performance enthusiasts, who cannot afford a luxury CFRP bodywork car, have the option of upgrading their vehicles with carbon fibre car parts. There is one type that enjoys extreme popularity, despite its rather high price.
Carbon fibre car wheels are now in demand. This breakthrough technology allows for better acceleration due to reduced rotational inertia and what is called the unsprung mass. Noise level is another crucial factor separating luxury cars from ordinary vehicles. CFRPs lower road noise and make driving an even more pleasant experience. They also have better contact with the surface of the road, thus improving car handling. Unfortunately, their prices are exorbitant, and a set of four carbon fibre car wheels comes with a price tag of approximately £10.000. Despite the cost, many well-heeled motorists in the UK want to stand out from the crowd and are willing to pay for it. And so the carbon fibre wheels keep on turning.
Carbon fibre car tyres are another piece of high-tech you can buy for your vehicle. In this case, it isn't as much about reducing the weight as it is about the improved handling and durability. Goodyear Eagle ResponsEdge Technology is a great example of CFRPs in use as they received fantastic reviews from drivers worldwide. They also have the advantage of being quite affordable for a part that utilises carbon fibre technology.
Carbon fibre, a car-making gamechanger
CFRPs can possibly offer ecological advantages as well. Once they become more widespread due to the decrease in their prices, even large family cars and compacts will be much lighter than they are now. Less weight means that horsepower will be less in demand. Ultimately, it opens the possibility to use downsized internal combustion engines with all their green benefits - reduced fuel consumption and emissions. The same principle applies to electric vehicles as their lower overall weight will allow a smaller battery to achieve the same range and performance.
Scientists and engineers constantly struggle to improve currently used materials, and it is no surprise that they came up with something even better. The next-generation carbon nanotube reinforced polymer's use is currently limited to high-tech projects, such as the new F-35 Lightning II fighter. With time, however, as it becomes more widespread, the new material will likely make its way into the automotive industry, just like the CFRPs did.