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Friday
Nov162012

Carbon Fiber Road Wheels?

By Christopher A. Sawyer

“It’s laid up, a full one-piece laminate made up of a series of different elements and preforms,” says Jake Dingle, CEO of Carbon Revolution, and Australian pioneer in the design, development and manufacture of carbon fiber wheels. “It comes out of the mold looking like the final piece. All we do is drill five holes, machine the center bore, and deflash and paint it.” The holes make room for a metal center hub that is mechanically held in place by a process that is the subject of multiple patent applications. Put it all together and you have the first continuous-fiber carbon fiber road wheel for passenger cars.

The initial launch, as you might expect, is in the upper end of the sports car market; not a Bugatti Veyron, though it could use the weight reduction these wheels bring, but the Porsche 911, Audi R8, and Lamborghini Gallardo. Wheels for the BMW M3 and Nissan GT-R arrive in 2013. What these cars have in common is that they are prime vehicles for track day use, and run by owners who have the financial wherewithal to purchase carbon fiber wheels at a cost $15,000/set. That $15,000 price may sound like a lot, but it is on par with many performance upgrades in the mid- to upper sports car market. Says Dingle: “We want this to be in the mix with the decision to rebore the motor, make an exhaust modification or add a turbocharger. It’s not a case of ‘Do I like the wheels on my car?’” It’s not bling, it’s technology Dingle and Carbon Revolution's Design Director Ashley Denmead are selling.

Beyond OEM Standard

Three years were spent collaborating with mainly European OEMs to discern what the requirements are for a composite wheel. It was a long process that originally began in 2004 when Denmead was a member of a Formula SAE team in college. The design and the idea went through many iterations before Carbon Revolution contacted European OEMs in 2009 to see if they had any interest in lightweight wheel technology, and what they needed to see from a validation standpoint for such a safety critical part.

Automakers were most definitely interested, especially when they realized the Carbon Revolution wheel could provide a 40% to 50% weight savings versus a factory design. “For Porsche, our wheel is 15 lb and the factory wheel is 26-28 lb,” says Dingle, “for an OEM-validated wheel. That’s a big weight savings.” It took a lot of testing with the TÜV, the German testing agency, talking to the OEMs about their requirements, and developing a validation program that encapsulates both OEM and aftermarket standards. From a structural standpoint, the tests fall into two categories: 1) an impact test, and 2) fatigue tests. One is a bi-axial fatigue test done in Germany that Carbon Revolution now does in Detroit with Independent Test Services. “We baked all of this together to create our own test criteria that encompasses all of the most stringent checks, and added another 30% on top of that. So we are testing at 130% of standard.”

In the test, a robotic arm presses the tire against a rotating drum, loading up the wheel in both the vertical and axial directions. The forces are based on laps of the Nurburgring, and the test takes four days to complete. It covers 7,500 kilometers (4,660 miles), a duty cycle that, Denmead says, “is equivalent to what you’d see in a vehicle over 300,000 kilometers (186,411 miles).” At 130% of standard, the requirement Carbon Revolution set for itself was beyond the burst limit for the rear tires. “So we ran it to 125%,” says Dingle.

“Carbon fiber composites have an almost infinite fatigue life,” he says, “but there have been questions about how it would perform on impact as the material has a reputation for being brittle, especially when impacted the ‘wrong’ way.” They needn’t have worried. In destructive tests replicating a serious accident, designed to highlight whether or not the material has a safe failure mode, an aluminum wheel will split open circumferentially. “Our are designed to fail on the outer bead so you can see it, and it gives a slow air loss,” says Dingle. “Certification bodies and OEMs favor failure modes that are readily apparent to the average consumer.”

Building For the Future

In on-road testing at Opel's test track in Germany, the test vehicles needed major repairs. Carbon Revolution's wheels, on the other hand, needed none.“The goal from the outset has been as much on manufacturability as on the product itself,” Dingle declares. Thus, the Carbon Revolution design doesn’t require the use of an autoclave or pre-preg process. It uses dry fibers and is closer in concept to a classic resin transfer molding (RTM) procedure. “We avoided some of the pitfalls of RTM, which takes huge capital outlays for massive presses,” claims Dingle. Yet, he says, in the pipeline is a production process that has the capacity to build 250,000 wheels per year. That’s 65,000 vehicle sets; a large number but still a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 60 million road wheels made for new cars sold in the U.S. each year.

Those vehicles will still be premium models, but a ‘blue sky’ plan to have a value-engineered product in the “low hundreds of dollars per wheel” is on the menu. “They’d be painted wheels without the woven finish you see on the current wheels,” says Denmead, “and the metal bits would be value engineered instead of hard anodized.” A 17-in wheel built to these specs would weigh about 4.5 kg (10 lb) with a weighted average material cost of less that $10/kg, and the labor, paint and fitting costs added on top would still make carbon fiber wheels very competitive. “We are still a ways away from that, but it is protected within our process,” says Dingle.

Before that happens, look for Carbon Revolution wheels to be offered as an option on high-end cars where the OEM can pass some cost through to the customer for this option; much as has been done with carbon-ceramic brake discs. And though neither man will say who they have been working with in Europe over the past three years, you can imagine a situation in which a company like BMW with its iSeries cars would be very interested in a lightweight wheel option. Eventually, as cost decline, this could become the main wheel for a future generation EV or hybrid optimized around their weight saving capabilities.

Automotive and Beyond

Today, developmental contracts are morphing to production contracts. As the lightweight, low-cost variant comes online and production moves to alloy wheel levels (2.5 million units/year, which will require about 20,000 tons of carbon fiber), the carbon fiber manufacturers and resin suppliers are becoming very interested. Unlike a military aircraft program, this level of utilization is scalable, steady, long-term and global, which makes it perfect for investment in the technology. And though it costs about $100 million for a major carbon fiber plant, the process to make the wheels themselves is more “light industrial” in terms of energy, infrastructure and automation.

Aerospace is another market looking intently at the Carbon Revolution wheel. With weight a major determinant of fuel use and cargo capacity, pulling weight out of an airplane is profitable. “Aerospace is quoting $3,000 per kilogram per year in fuel cost,” says Denmead. Extrapolate that against the 14-16 wheels per aircraft, multiply that across a fleet of planes, and then add in the retrofit fleet, and you have a market ripe, and ready to pay, for this technology. Trucks are another. Painted truck wheels that don’t corrode, built at low cost, and that have a long life while conferring fuel savings are very attractive.

As for the recyclability of carbon fiber, Dingle insists it’s possible. “There are ways of taking the resin off and reclaiming the fibers at the end of their life. And that can be used to make other products.” Carbon Revolution is working with another Australian company on a biomass furnace to effectively melt off the resin. The resin will burn away before the fiber is damaged due to the temperature resistance of the fiber. Until that method is perfected, the used carbon fiber will likely be ground up and used as a filler in other products. This will create a feedstock demand for Carbon Revolution to fill.

There have been attempts from other groups and engineering groups to do the same thing as Carbon Revolution. However, as Dingle points out, there are a few things you have to get right before you can even think about production: 1) fiber geometry, 2) fiber placement, 3) a bolting system that works, 4) the ability to cope with high brake temperatures, and 5) a design that bolts right up without requiring any changes to the vehicle itself. “And then you have to pass all of the industry’s tests and manufacture efficiently,” he says. A lot have tried and are trying, but none have succeeded thus far. It will be interesting to see how far and how fast Carbon Revolution’s fortunes turn.

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