IACMI is working with several partners on ways to reduce the cost, including a joint effort with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to reduce the cost of carbon fibers to closer to $5 per pound. But suppliers will have to work to meet the potential for increased demand as well, Drzal says, since the infrastructure necessary to create lower cost carbon fiber isn’t yet in place.

IACMI also is addressing the challenge of production speeds. One of its goals is to boost the adoption of carbon fiber composites in mass-produced platforms (over 100,000 units/year) within five years. In addition, the institute is pushing multiple technologies for processing continuous fiber reinforcement to achieve cycle times under three minutes within five years, with an under 90-second production time being the ultimate goal.

“If you think about where carbon fibers are used now … they’re relatively small volume applications,” Drzal says. “To get up to millions of vehicles each year there’s going to have to be big changes in the way these parts are manufactured. That’s the core focus of IACMI. How can we produce these in a 90-second timeframe?”

By the end of this year, IACMI’s new facility, operated by MSU, will be putting faculty, research staff and graduate students to work solving these challenges. The full-scale Vehicle Technology Area is purchasing technologies to explore both thermoset and thermoplastic processes – including equipment for high pressure liquid molding, injection molding, overmolding and high-speed compression molding – specifically for creating automotive solutions. It also will train people used to working with metals on working with composites. What’s more, Drzal adds, “We’ll have the ability for material suppliers to develop process technologies and parameters for their materials. We think that’s a cornerstone of what it’s going to take to increase the use of composites.”

Looking to the future, Drzal has one guess as to what we’ll see on vehicles: “The answer really is going to be a hybrid solution. That can even include a combination of composites to metals, for example,” he says. “It’s not going to be exclusively all composite materials, but it’s going to be the best combination depending on what the design for the part is and how it should function.”