The new Ford GT makes extensive us of carbon fiber.

When Ford’s new GT supercar makes its way into production next year it will make extensive use of super-light carbon fiber.

Until now, advanced composites have had only limited application in the auto industry because of their cost and the manufacturing challenges they pose. But as part of a new joint venture, Ford says it hopes to find ways to put carbon fiber into more mainstream applications going forward.

“Automotive manufacturers’ use of carbon fiber composites has been hindered by the absence of both high-volume manufacturing methods and affordable material formats,” said Mehmet Ali Berkman, vice chairman of DowAska, which is itself a partnership of Dow Chemical and the Turkish firm Aksa Akrilik Kimya Sanayii.

Together, Ford and DowAksa plan to find a “pathway for high-volume manufacturing,” that could resolve some of those challenges.

The potential payoff could be huge. With the auto industry facing rapidly increasing emissions and fuel economy standards, manufacturers have to find ways to deliver major improvements in efficiency over the next decade. They’re getting there in a variety of ways, such as downsizing powertrains, improving powertrains and adopting alternative drive technologies.

(New Ford GT will be maker’s most expensive model ever. Click Here for the story.)

But what the industry calls lightweighting is expected to be one of the most important steps in the process.

Makers have been working with a variety of alternative materials, including advanced steels and aluminum. The aluminum-intensive design of the new Ford F-150 helped the maker reduce the weight of the truck by as much as 700 pounds. But experts believe even greater savings will be possible through the use of composites.

Mike Whitens, a director at Ford Research & Advanced Engineering, said, “The goal of our work here fits within the company’s Blueprint for Sustainability, where future Ford vehicles will be lighter with optimized performance that would help consumers further improve fuel economy and reduce emissions.”

Until now, carbon fiber has largely been limited to the likes of Formula One race cars and exotic supercars like the Ford GT and LaFerrari. But the material has also found limited applications in somewhat more mainstream models, such as the new Cadillac ATS-V.

(Bigger also can be lighter. Click Here to find out how automakers are putting their cars on a diet.)

Meanwhile, BMW has made much extensive use of carbon fiber reinforced plastics in its new battery-based i3 and i8 models. The German maker’s own joint venture is setting up what will soon become the world’s largest carbon fiber plant, in the State of Washington.

The BMW approach differs markedly from traditional carbon fiber manufacturing. The material is ground up and molded with random fiber patterns that can be formed in various shapes much more quickly than the traditional, labor-intensive manufacturing process.

Ford and DowAksa appear to be working on a very similar approach.

The downside is that this manufacturing process doesn’t result in the striking patterns that has made carbon fiber such a distinctive and visually desirable process. But if the new approach allows carbon fiber to go mainstream, that eventually will prove to be a very minor complaint.

(Ford designers want to mine your mind. Click Here to find out how brainwaves could help shape future vehicles.)

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