Unless you've been living under a rock, you probably know that gas prices have been rising rapidly -- and aren't likely to go down again. What's driving the price increase? There are a number of factors, but one of the biggest is demand. Oil, which is used to make gasoline, costs a lot of money because the many people who need it are willing to pay. While it used to be that only a few countries, mainly in the West, had enough wealth to have widespread car ownership, countries like India and China are experiencing major growth in car ownership, causing more demand and increased prices for gas and oil. What's worse than the high cost of oil is the fact that it's a finite resource: We're going to run out one day. With more and more oil being used, the pressure is on to cut back, lessen demand, bring down prices and extend the planet's supply.
While oil powers many parts of daily life -- from generating electricity to heating homes -- one of the easiest ways to cut back on oil use is by changing the way we drive. Car makers have already answered the call to lessen our reliance on gas by making gasoline engines more fuel-efficient, introducing gas-electric hybrids and vehicles that can run on alternative fuels. One of the best ways to cut back on gas is to make cars more fuel-efficient, and one of the easiest ways to do that is by reducing how much a car weighs.
Cutting a car's weight makes a lot of sense. If an engine has less weight to haul around, it will use less energy (just like you use less energy carrying something light versus something that's heavy). But reducing a car's weight isn't as easy as it sounds. Lighter cars still need to be safe and durable. Car manufacturers are responding to the challenge of making strong, safe, durable and lightweight cars through the use of materials like carbon fiber.
So what exactly is carbon fiber, and could it help end the oil crisis? Read on to find out.
What Is Carbon Fiber?
Before you can understand how carbon fiber can help solve the oil crisis, you have to understand what it is. Carbon fiber is a super strong material that's also extremely lightweight. Engineers and designers love it because it's five times as strong as steel, two times as stiff, yet weighs about two-thirds less. Carbon fiber is basically very thin strands of carbon -- even thinner than human hair. The strands can be twisted together, like yarn. The yarns can be woven together, like cloth. To make carbon fiber take on a permanent shape, it can be laid over a mold, then coated with a stiff resin or plastic (kind of like how you would make something out of papier-mâché by putting newspaper strips over a mold, then adding paste to force it to hold the shape).
Most car components are made of steel. Replacing steel components with carbon fiber would reduce the weight of most cars by 60 percent [source: USA Today]. That 60 percent drop in weight would, in turn, reduce that car's fuel consumption by 30 percent and cut greenhouse gas and other emissions by 10 to 20 percent [source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory]. That's a huge fuel savings, even without changing the car's engine. With a lighter carbon fiber body, car makers could build cars with smaller, more efficient engines, or increase the use of electric engines, resulting in even more fuel savings. Reducing weight, increasing fuel efficiency and allowing for the development of different kinds of engines: That's how carbon fiber can solve the oil crisis.
But wait, if carbon fiber is so great, why isn't it in widespread use in cars? Go to the next page to find out about carbon fiber's downsides.
The Difficulties of Carbon Fiber
Only a few cars available at your local dealership use carbon fiber. The BMW M6 has some carbon fiber panels on its body, as does the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 and the Ford GT. The Audi R8 also includes some carbon fiber. What do all these cars have in common? They cost a lot of money -- most start above $100,000. It's rare to see a car with carbon fiber because it's expensive! Ten years ago, carbon fiber cost $150 a pound. Now, the price is around $10 a pound [source: Zoltek]. Steel, on the other hand, costs less than a dollar per pound. Many analysts say that for carbon fiber to make it into widespread use in cars, the price will have to drop to about $5 per pound [source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory]. Cost is the main hurdle carbon fiber will have to overcome before it can provide a viable energy solution.
The second hurdle is waste disposal. When a typical car breaks down, its steel can be melted and used to construct another car (or building, or anything else made of steel). Carbon fiber can't be melted down, and it's not easy to recycle. When it is recycled, the recycled carbon fiber isn't as strong as it was before recycling. Carbon fiber recycled from a car isn't strong enough to be used in building another car. That's a big issue. Having more cars use carbon fiber would save a lot of oil, but it could also generate a lot of waste.
As it stands now, carbon fiber could solve the oil crisis. It's lightweight, durable and safe. But it's also expensive and difficult to recycle. For now, it looks like carbon fiber is just going to be one of many solutions to the oil crisis. When combined with efficient engines, other, cheaper materials and a change in driving habits, carbon fiber is just one piece of the energy puzzle.
To learn more about carbon fiber and cars that incorporate carbon fiber, look over the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Kanellos, Mike. "Here Comes the Everyday Carbon Fiber Car" CNET. http://www.news.com/Here-comes-the-everyday-carbon-fiber-car/2100-1008_3-6114289.html
- Motavalli, Jim. "How Efficient Can Internal Combustion Get?" http://www.thedailygreen.com/living-green/blogs/cars-transportation/gas-mileage-limit-460513
- Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Carbon Fiber Cars Could Put U.S. On Road to Efficiency." http://www.ornl.gov/info/press_releases/get_press_release.cfm?ReleaseNumber=mr20060306-00
- Smock, Doug. "Magnesium, Aluminum will Play Big Role in Auto Weight Reduction." Design News. http://www.designnews.com/article/CA6553122.html
- Woodyard, Chris. "Carbon Fiber Sparkles with Diamond Like Appeal." USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2005-07-25-carbon-fiber-usat_x.htm
- Zoltek. "Letter from the CEO." http://www.zoltek.com/aboutus/ceo.php