We are working in partnership with some OEMs to develop some of these solutions; however I am not at liberty to elaborate. Carbon fibers are fairly expensive, but since it’s already a proven solution in aviation, everyone is looking to CFRP materials. That also means it’s difficult to get access to CFRP because the demand is higher than the supply at the moment. You even see many of the OEMs like VW and Daimler enter strategic alliances with a carbon fiber producers to guarantee CFRP materials, especially as they look at building more hybrid and electric cars where weight is of upmost importance. In addition to downsizing the engine, OEMs can also reduce body weight by replacing steel or aluminum with composites. All kind of components are being developed at the moment with technologies like short fibers, long glass fibers and also hybrid solutions, called “organoblech”.
What are the obstacles in commercializing the latest green composites?
With bio-based materials, you have the Economies of Scale effect. We’ve just started producing these materials, so there isn’t sufficient business. Logically, those materials are more expensive to develop than the traditional fossil oil-based plastics. Everyone knows these materials are the right way to go but they are very difficult to get approved, especially in the automotive industry, which is very cost-sensitive.
The main obstruction with metal-to-composite conversion efforts is that it always takes a very long time to get from the idea to real commercialization, sometimes even 15 to 20 years. There are a lot of ideas to replace metal by composites in a lot of different parts, but the automotive industry is very conservative. There certainly are regional differences. For example, Japanese OEMs in particular are very metal-minded, while European OEMs are leading the technology toward composites. Europe has much more stringent emissions legislation. Japan is close, but the U.S. is five to 10 years behind, even if you convert California’s fuel consumption legislation and compare it to Europe.
Because large cars are so still popular in the U.S., will it continue to fall behind?
That’s a good question. I see GM, Ford and Chrysler putting efforts into reducing the weight of their cars, but the pressure is less than in Europe. The real reason is because in Europe gasoline prices are extremely high compared to the U.S. Eventually, I do believe that smaller cars can and will be purchased more frequently in the U.S. But only when gasoline prices would increase to the level we have here in Europe, then, I suppose, consumers will force OEMs to do more in weight reduction, friction reduction and electrification.