BMW sets its sights on innovative carbon-fiber future with i3 electric car | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 17.09.2013
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BMW sets its sights on innovative carbon-fiber future with i3 electric car

BMW expects its new i3 car to accelerate electric mobility. The car goes into production this week. It's got an innovative carbon fiber body, making it lightweight. But the material is expensive.

"The revolution has begun," announced BMW's director of development, Herbert Diess, at the International Motor Show (IAA) in Frankfurt. Surrounded by video screens, he presented the star of his presentation: BMW's new electric i3 car.

What's truly revolutionary about the car is its body: rather than being made of heavy metal, it's made of light-weight carbon fiber.

BMW says shifting to carbon fiber will counteract the extra weight of the battery. It's heavy but will allow for an extended range when fully charged. The development also aims to catapult this expensive material - which so far has only been used in the aeronautics industry and Formula 1 car racing - from the luxury sector to the mass market.

And to get there, BMW has entered a joint venture with specialists, SGL Carbon.

Carbon rather than nuclear waste

In the 1980s, the industrial grounds at Wackersdorf, Bavaria, were the scene of protests by local residents, who were opposed to a planned nuclear waste reprocessing plant.

Today, the site is being used to process the fiber of the future.

It's here that large machines will process kilometers upon kilometers of black carbon fiber bundles, which have been delivered from the United States.

Wackersdorf is one of two sites run by SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers - the joint venture, comprising BMW and SGL Carbon. Its second factory is at Moses Lake, in the US state of Washington.

"We process carbon-fiber spools into sheets," says Katharina Schraidt. "You can think of them as wide mats - like carpets."

Carbon-fibers are woven into mats and rolled onto spools Copyright: SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers

Carbon-fibers are woven into mats and rolled onto spools

Indeed, what the machines reel up looks like large rolls of carpet found in a home improvement store. These are the raw materials that form the basis of the parts for the new i3.

Expensive material for mass production

It's hoped the joint venture will give BMW the decisive edge when it comes to carbon-based materials of the future. But not without investment.

"Carbon is very expensive," Schraidt says. "No company has manufactured carbon for the mass market up to now."

So far, parts have only ever been processed by hand, piece-by-piece.

"That's not an option for us," says Schraidt. "We want to produce the i3 for the mass market."

BMW and SGL Carbon have been trying to make carbon parts affordable for years - and that's the thing about these machines at Wackersdorf.

The company has had over 100 employees working to produce the carbon mats since the end of July - with BMW focusing on the innovative material for its i3 electric car.

BMW is convinced that carbon possesses ideal properties.

"It's very sturdy, but it's much lighter than steel and aluminum," Schraidt points out.

The lighter the car, the longer the range.

"The greater the range, the more attractive the car."

Sporty, chic and futuristic: the i3 tanks up

Sporty, chic and futuristic: the i3 tanks up

The carbon-fiber mats are shaped into car body parts at a BMW plant at Landshut before being shipped to Leipzig, where the i3 is being assembled. Other components for the new electric car are being manufactured at BMW's largest plant in Dingolfing.

A true e-car

The car industry has been looking to the i3 with great anticipation - the move is being taken as the sign of a major carmaker placing its bets firmly on e-mobility.

"Of course we're sending a clear signal in the market," says Walter Huber, BMW spokesperson for the plants in Wackersdorf and Regensburg. "But it's a courageous step that we're very confident about."

BMW says it is not interested in simply overhauling a current model and turning it into an electric one. Huber says the i3 has been conceived as an electric car from scratch - and not only the car body.

The i3 can be recharged via any electric socket and has a range of up to 150 kilometers (93 miles). Those eager to get behind the wheel will not have to wait long: it's due on the road later this autumn.

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