Ford, Dow to explore carbon fiber use in vehicles

DETROIT Thu Apr 12, 2012 12:11am EDT

DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co and Dow Chemical Co will work to develop cost-effective ways of using carbon fiber in high-volume cars and trucks as the No.2 U.S. automaker moves to cut vehicle weight to improve overall fuel economy.

The joint venture with Dow Automotive Systems mean Ford (F.N) could start using components made from advanced carbon fiber composites in its vehicle lineup before the end of this decade. Dow Automotive is a unit of Dow Chemical (DOW.N).

Weight reduction is one way for automakers to boost the efficiency of their fleets in anticipation of rising oil prices and stricter fuel economy standards for upcoming model years.

By 2020, Ford aims to cut between 250 pounds and 750 pounds from its new cars and trucks, partly by using lighter materials. Shedding that weight will reduce the strain on the vehicle's engine, allowing it to wring out more miles per gallon.

Lighter materials can also help Ford improve the range of its electric and hybrid vehicles on a single charge.

"Reducing weight will benefit the efficiency of every Ford vehicle," said Paul Mascarenas, Ford's chief technical officer. "However, it's particularly critical to improving the range of plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles."

The Obama administration said automakers would have to boost the average fuel efficiency of their cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by the 2025 model year.

Preliminary U.S. data shows that the average fuel economy for cars and trucks made for the 2011 model year was 22.8 miles per gallon. Ford's fuel economy was 21.3 miles per gallon, according to the data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

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The Ford deal comes after General Motors Co (GM.N) signed a similar pact late last year with Teijin Ltd to develop advanced carbon fiber composites for GM vehicles worldwide.

GM said carbon fiber is costly, but is 10 times stronger than regular-grade steel and one-quarter of steel's weight.

Using carbon fiber in lieu of conventional steel can lower the weight of a vehicle component by up to 50 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Cutting a car's weight by 10 percent can improve fuel economy by as much as 8 percent.

Carbon fiber, already used in racing cars and products like hockey sticks, is not new to the auto industry. BMW (BMWG.DE), for example, uses the material in its M3 coupe.

Yet carbon fiber's high cost has blocked its wide-scale use. Industry experts say one way to lower the overall cost of carbon fiber is to find cheaper ways of preparing those materials.

Teams at Ford and Dow Automotive are seeking inexpensive sources of carbon fiber suitable for vehicle production and will explore ways to build carbon fiber components on a large scale.

Dow brings to the partnership an expertise in materials science and high-volume polymer processing. Dow has partnerships with Turkish company AKSA and the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory to make carbon fiber and its variants.

Last month, the Obama administration announced it would provide $14.2 million in funding to spur development of stronger and lighter materials.

(Reporting By Deepa Seetharaman; Editing by Matt Driskill)