The manufacturers with the largest ability to respond to new demand are those with the greatest investment in capability and design testing and manufacturing process equipment. So it requires a substantial investment. There’s not a lot of existing capacity out there that is drop-in and ready for a significant shift toward lightweight composites.
What does Zoltek see as the future of carbon fiber in medium to large production automotive parts?
We are most interested in structural components that lend themselves to high-volume manufacturing, compression molding and injection molding. We stay away from components that are painted because of the difficulties in reconciling the painting process with different manufacturing processes. We’re utilizing our material in this fashion, but we think it will remain a niche market from a volume sales standpoint, and by far the largest tonnage of carbon fiber is with the structural and underhood components such as drive shafts, chassis, pillar, brass beams, bumper beams, intake manifold and oil pans.
What production processes will the subsidiary incorporate?
We’re working with our customer base on all volume-capable carbon fiber manufacturing processes. These include preforming, resin transfer molding, compression molding for thermosets and thermoplastics, thermoplastic compounding for short and long fiber reinforced molding compounds, filament winding. If a process doesn’t have an established history, the development cycle for implementation into a high-volume vehicle platform is quite long. We’re focusing most of our efforts around established processes incorporating fiberglass, analogs or filament winding.
How can the industry improve its recycling of carbon fiber to improve its “green” aspect?
There are different ways for evaluating this aspect of end use requirements. It varies from one OEM to another. In Europe, you must identify exactly how this material will be recovered at its end of life. It’s a different question for thermosets and thermoplastics, and we’re working with companies who are developing techniques to reclaim carbon fiber at its end of life and recycle it either as short fiber or milled fiber materials. Over the course of the life of the material, the weight savings more than offsets its cost to produce and cost for end of life recycling.