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SGL and BMW to Build Carbon Fiber Plant In U.S.

Mass production of carbon fiber parts is an ambitious goal.

by on Apr.06, 2010

BMW intends to use expensive light weight materials in future "Megacity" vehicles.

SGL Group and BMW Group today announced today that their joint venture, SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers LLC, would build a carbon fiber manufacturing plant in Moses Lake, Washington.

During the initial phase, $100 million will be invested and 80 local jobs will be created.

The new facility is part of a strategy to commercialize the manufacturing of ultra light weight carbon-fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) for use in future vehicles. Right now CFRP is only used in ultra-expensive supercars, and the hand layup processes are glacially slow and defect prone.

However, as both carbon dioxide and fuel efficiency standards tighten all auto makers are looking to build lighter weight vehicles to increase fuel efficiency. Light weight is particularly appealing for electric vehicles because it decreases the demand on very expensive lithium ion battery packs thereby increasing range.

The fibers manufactured at Moses Lake will be used in  BMW Group’s upcoming Megacity vehicle – a new small car for urban mobility. Megacity is set to be launched before 2015 under the  Mini brand, and will be assembled in Leipzig, Germany.

Also known as project-i, the Megacity program will eventually produce both electric and internal combustion engine vehicles. CFRP is a relatively strong lightweight material but it has been considered too expensive for mass applications. CFRP also requires sophisticated design and analysis tools so that vehicles with it meet safety regulations, particularly crash standards.

The decision to build the carbon fiber plant in Moses Lake was based primarily on the availability of renewable clean hydropower and competitive energy costs in the state of Washington, the companies said in a statement.

”This new plant in Moses Lake is a milestone in the use of carbon fibers for large scale production in the automotive industry,” said Robert Koehler, CEO SGL Group. “It will be the world’s most cost efficient carbon fiber plant using state-of-the-art technologies.”

The production of CFRP is complicated. The raw material needed to manufacture carbon fibers, a polyacrylonitrile based precursor, will be produced by a joint venture between SGL Group and the Japanese company Mitsubishi Rayon (MRC) in Otake, Japan. In the next step, the Moses Lake plant will convert the polyacrylic fibers into the actual carbon fibers. These fibers are then processed into light weight carbon fiber fabrics at a second joint venture site in Wackersdorf, Germany. The CFRP parts and components will then be made from these fabrics at the BMW Group Plant Landshut, Germany. The assembly of the Megacity Vehicle will take place at the BMW Group plant in Leipzig, Germany where currently BMW 1 Series and the BMW X1 are being built. (See First Look: BMW “E” Class Concept)

SGL Group and BMW Group have cooperated for many years in the area of carbon fiber composites and have combined their core competencies to industrialize the automotive use of carbon fibers in a joint venture founded in October 2009. (See BMW and SGL Form Carbon Fiber Joint Venture )

The joint venture operates through two companies, one based in the USA (SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers LLC) and the other in Germany (SGL Automotive Fibers GmbH & Co KG). SGL Group holds 51% of the shares and the BMW Group 49%.

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