Inside BMW's Race To Build Electric Cars With Lighter, "Greener" Carbon Fiber

BMW i3 electric car
BMW i3 electric car
Michael Specht

MUNICH - To many, "i" was just a letter of the alphabet – until it was used by a then unknown computer company to skyrocket to the global position Apple holds today. And now BMW is hoping to go far on “i” too, investing billions in the i3 electric car due to come onto the market by the end of the year.

The four-door compact with an aluminum chassis and carbon fiber body will be a first in environmentally friendly mobility. "This is a bigger step than going from horse-drawn carriages to motor vehicles," says BMW CEO and Chairman of the Board of Management Norbert Reithofer.

So far BMW is the only mass producer of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, or CFRP, bodywork. Makers of racing cars like McLaren and Lamborghini use the material, but that’s auto-industry haute couture as opposed to assembly line production – and at BMW’s Leipzig factory, the i3 is going to roll off the lines at the same speed as conventional car bodies.

It’s a big difference, and if the Bavarian car company succeeds in its bid to enter the carbon-fiber age it would be light years ahead of competition like Audi, Volkswagen and Daimler. Its “i” project could even usher in a new industrial era.

But there’s a long way to go before that happens. The global carbon-fiber market is very small. By way of comparison: Per year, 1.3 billion tons of steel are processed, and 40 million tons of aluminum – but only 40,000 tons of carbon fiber. And BMW needs more than 30,000 tons.

Supplying that quantity in tailor-made quality is quite simply too much for providers. And since purchasing poses a problem, says BMW’s Dennis Baumann, head of business development, the car manufacturer decided to make its own CFRP together with specialists SGL Carbon.

Hanging by a thread

Producing carbon fiber is energy-intensive, but because from the beginning of its “i” project BMW has been playing the sustainability card, only a climate-neutral production process is possible. After all, the environmentally friendly marketing pitch for i-models has to be credible. So the completely new factory that BMW and SGL are operating some two hours out of Seattle in Moses Lake, in the U.S. state of Washington, was built and will be operated in accordance with state-of-the-art sustainability principles, with a hydroelectric facility supplying SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers with "green" power.

The raw material, or precursors, used – petroleum-based carbonaceous acrylic fiber -- comes from Japan. In Moses Lake, all that is not carbon is burned out of these fibers from dozens of rolls in four oxidation ovens each of which is 15 meters (49 feet) long, nine meters (29.5 feet) high, weighs 80 tons and is operating at 300° C. After going through two more high-temperature ovens (800°C and 1,300°C) the carbon fibers are 40 times stronger than steel -- a car could be suspended from a strand no wider than a shoe lace.

The black fibers are then wound around huge spools for the trip to Germany, specifically to a kind of textile factory located in Oberpfalz. Here BMW has undertaken another pioneering project in automobile production, with a vast sewing machine that joins the strands together to make mats weighing anywhere from 150 to 600 grams (5 to 21 ounces) per square meter. The mats are then soaked in synthetic resin and molded. BMW i-models will weigh some 300 kilograms (660 pounds) less than if the bodies were made with conventional materials. In addition to race cars, CFRP has for years also been used in the manufacture of planes and boats.

BMW’s competition is of course also using some carbon fiber in its models, for example for trunk lids, roofs and spoilers. But because they’ve gotten no further than that, BMW is not admitting anyone to the production facility where the carbon fiber is formed into car bodies at costs that still make the cars viable for mass distribution.

Indeed, plenty of automobile engineering experts are skeptical that it can actually be done. The race is on.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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