With more than a hint of hyperbole and without much trying, James Palmer, an economic development manager with the Washington State Dept. of Commerce, stirred up the always simmering competitive materials pot a few weeks ago by recommending to anyone within reach that they should Think of composites as the new aluminum.
The message, delivered by way of a news release issued from the Office of Washington Lieutenant Governor Brad Owens, landed with a thud, so to speak, at the Washington D,C, offices of the Aluminum Association, which took exception to the statement, particularly coming from an employee of the state that is the ancestral home of one-time Seattle-based Boeing Co.
Aluminum has been used in aviation since the birth of the industry, I dont see it being replaced by composites any time soon, Heidi Brock, Aluminum Association president shot back in a release issued the following day. Lightweight, strong and durable with a positive environmental footprint, aluminum stands above competing materials, especially in the transportation sector, Brock said, noting that transportation remains the fast-growing segment of the North American and global aluminum industry.
Palmer didnt set out to antagonize the aluminum industry. His main mission, in fact, was to drum up support to help organize the composites industry in Washington state into its own economic sector. It is a very rapidly growing industry in a highly innovative sector that has a lot of potential, Palmer said in the statement.
Although there are exceptions, such as the high-end acoustic guitars manufactured from carbon fiber by RainSong, a Woodinville, Wash. based company, much of the innovation and potential to date has been tied to aerospace applications. Thats not the case, however, with one of Washington states newest composite-centric residents, SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers LLC (SGL ACF), a joint venture of Germanys SGL Group and the BMW Group that began operation of the first of two lines almost exactly a year ago at Moses Lake. And SGL ACF has more than a little to do with Palmers bullish assessment of the future of composites.
The joint venture, founded in 2009 and located about 175 miles southeast of Seattle, operates through two companies, one (SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers LLC) based at Moses Lake and the other (SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers GmbH & Co. KG.) in Germany. SGL Group holds 51 percent of the shares in the joint venture with BMW holding the remaining 49 percent.
The Moses Lake plant, which represents an investment of about $100 million, sits on a 60-acre site with the option to purchase additional land when demand merits. The facility will initially run two carbon fiber lines, each sporting an annual capacity of 1,500 tonnes. Carbon fibers manufactured there will be used exclusively to meet demand for the material by the BMW Group with the first application targeted for the automakers all-electric BMW i3, which is scheduled to hit the showroom floor next year.
Previously known as the Megacity vehicle, the i3 marks the first use of the automakers LifeDrive architecture, which features a carbon fiber passenger cell, in a production vehicle. The passenger compartment is made from high-strength, extremely lightweight carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). Use of the material across large sections of the car makes the Life module very light and is said to improve the i3s performance and help compensate for battery weight.
Ask its owners and theyll tell you the Moses Lake carbon fiber plant is the most cost efficient of its kind worldwide. In regard to process efficiencies, we are already where we wanted to be by the end of next year, Andreas Wuellner, managing director, SGL ACF told Inner Circle in late August, almost exactly a year after the official opening of the facility. We have made a huge amount of improvements already, all the small, incremental-type enhancements you do fine tuning a production process, he said. We immediately began to improve our processes between the Moses Lake and Wackersdorf plant in Germany.
Moses Lake is actually the second link in a global supply chain that transforms a polyacrylonitrile (PAN)-based precursor produced in Otake, Japan by a joint venture between SGL Group and Mitsubishi Rayon into carbon fibers at Moses Lake and then into lightweight carbon fiber fabrics at the Wackersdorf facility, also an SGL/BMW joint venture. The next stop is the BMW plant in Landshut, Germany, where the CFRP parts and components are made from the fabric. Parts produced there are assembled into the i3 at the BMW plant in Leipzig.
To insure the i3s pedigree is as green as possible and shave electrical costs and consumption at the same time, SGL and BMW, which formalized their joint venture agreement in October, 2009, actually kicked off the site selection process several months earlier.We looked at potential sites globally but that was more from an electricity cost standpoint, Wuellner recalled. It then became apparent to us that we had to look for renewable energy, which was really demanded by our BMW colleagues. Sustainability is a big deal for us because of the vehicles, which will use the materials. That took us on a path to where we could find electrical energy stemming from renewable sources, which came down to either solar, wind or hydro.
Eventually, that path led to Moses Lake and the Grant County Power Utility. When you want to have a stable political environment, the search narrows down quite fast, Wuellner said. We wound up looking at either the East Coast of Canada or the West Coast of the United States. And keeping in mind that we planned to expand in the future, that brought us to Grant County real fast because they have the electrical energy available to supply our potential expansion plans. We selected Moses Lake because of the hydropower stemming from the Columbia River.
The plant is purchasing power on the basis of a renewable contract similar to all the other industry in the area, Wuellner says. They dont make long-term contracts there. When you compare the rate to other locations in the U.S, it is very competitive, he adds. And when you compare it to rates in Europe, especially Germany, we are talking about prices that are seven or eight times higher in Germany.
Moses Lake relies on a multi-stage process to convert the PAN textile precursor into spools of carbon fiber. The first step is oxidation, a heat treatment process during which the material passes through a series of electric- rather than gas-fired ovens and the temperature increases from ambient up to around 260 degrees C. under atmospheric conditions, Wuellner explains. The next step is carbonization, which involves applying a lot of tension on the fibers and increasing the temperature again up to around 800 degrees C. initially and then up to about 1,500 deg. C., he adds. These steps are done in a nitrogen atmosphere.
This combination of temperature and heat drives unwanted chemical elements (hydrogen and nitrogen) off the strand and allocates molecules in a graphitic-like structure characterized by high mechanical properties. At this point, you have a carbon fiber but you then have to prepare the surface of the carbon fiber to intereact with the resin, Wuellner says. That process step is achieved by activating the surface of the carbon fiber strand in an electrolytic bath that enables the resin in the later process steps to bond with the carbon fiber. This is a very crucial step because, otherwise, you would have a carbon fiber with huge mechanical properties but would not be able to translate it into parts because its not really bonded with the matrix.
The material then passes through wash baths where the electrolytic solution, a combination of water and ammonia bicarbonate, is rinsed off and is next subjected to a sizing phase, which Wuellner describes as a very important step for the subsequent textile manufacturing process. It insures that you have a very consistent product with minimal variation in terms of the mechanical and physical properties, he says. That is something we have to establish and make sure for our sister plant in Germany, where we do the textile production step.
When Inner Circle spoke to Wuellner in late August, SGL ACF was shutting down line one for a few weeks in preparation to install the second line at Moses Lake. By the end of June of 2013, we will have two lines commissioned and qualified at 1,500 metric tons each, Wuellner said. In the meantime, we will be running the line at capacity in order to find out what we have to improve because startup production of the vehicle is scheduled for next year.
The two lines are identical and for good reason, Wuellner says. The carbon fiber industry isnt a very mature industry when you compare it to glass fiber, aluminum or steel. We have a long way to go, he acknowledges. I think in the past, the approach was build one line and the next line you built was totally different, he elaborates. As a result, you also ended up having a different product. That is something we have to avoid. We cannot go down that path. That is why we said we need identical lines.
While the birth of BMWs i3 all-electric vehicle and the rapid and relatively smooth startup of the SGL ACF joint venture plant at Moses Lake mark a milestone along the path toward the use of carbon fiber on an industrial scale in automobile construction, much remains to be done. Cost is the obvious and major barrier to more widespread use. But it is hardly the only hurdle.
Material utilization is another key focus of ongoing R&D investments and activities. The emphasize is on reducing material consumption in manufacturing the part, Wuellner comments. Material usage has to be much better than that what is achieved, for example, with steel. You have about 50-percent waste in a press shop in an auto plant but you dont care because you re-use the material in electric arc furnaces. Doing the same with carbon fibers creates issues.
Yes, we do re-use the material, he says. And we have a recycling process. But that comes at a cost. And the material is not virgin. Improving material utilization and determining how to develop more efficient recycling processes are very important, he emphasizes. That is what we are working on.
Wuellner also cautions that carbon fiber should be used very selectively. You have to really identify the parts that are worth being made from carbon fiber, he says.
I personally believe the future will be hybrid design, the SGL Group executive predicts. You have steel parts, you have aluminum parts but you also have carbon fiber parts and carbon fiber reinforcements. So, the future vehicle body will consist of three different materials.
I do not believe carbon fiber will displace steel and aluminum but you will have carbon fibers in specific parts, Wuellner says. We dont need a carbon fiber car, a vehicle with carbon fiber parts is enough.