Carbon fiber is still a fairly exotic material in the automotive industry, but it is likely to become more common--and perhaps faster than expected.

BMW said last Friday that it will triple production of carbon fiber at its facility in Moses Lake, Washington, to use in its carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) body shells.

Currently the plant--a jointed venture of SGL Group and BMW Group--has the capacity to produce 3,000 tons of carbon fiber annually, with two production lines dedicated to the material used in the bodies of the BMW i3 electric car and i8 plug-in hybrid.

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SGL--now the world's largest producer or carbon fiber--is already adding a third and fourth production line, which would double its capacity to 6,000 tons of material per year.

2014 BMW i3 (German-market version), Amsterdam, Oct 2013

2014 BMW i3 (German-market version), Amsterdam, Oct 2013

The newly announced plans would further the expansion, adding a fifth and sixth line with an ultimate goal of 9,000 tons of fiber produced per year.

CFRP is light but strong, reducing weight significantly without compromising structural rigidity. The i3's structure is so rigid, in fact, that it doesn't require a pillar between the front and rear doors.

The expansion comes as BMW grows 2014 i3 production capacity at its assembly plant in Leipzig, Germany, to meet unexpectedly high demand.

The factory is churning out 100 cars per day, against a previous rate of 70 cars per day.

BMW will invest $200 million to fund the expansion--in addition to $100 million previously invested--and expects to add 120 jobs at the Washington plant.

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While all production at Moses Lake is currently dedicated to BMW i models--and BMW M performance models have included carbon-fiber components for the past decade--the German automaker hopes to expand the use of carbon fiber to its more mainstream models.

Those models probably won't appear for some time yet, after the BMW i cars have served as rolling test laboratories for the new material.

But there's certainly no lack of applications for a material that can boost the fuel economy of a vehicle by, as Lotus founder Colin Chapman would have said, "adding lightness."


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