Cars move from carbon fibre to carbon-absorbing fibre

A Swiss company is working on a flax-based material that could change the industry

When the great Formula 1 racing car designer John Barnard first developed a car made entirely of carbon fibre, it wasn’t about saving weight – it was about creating a car with near-perfect aerodynamics. Make that car – what became McLaren MP4/1 – out of aluminium and the shape wouldn’t be strong enough. Make it out of steel and it would be far too heavy, defeating the purpose. Carbon fibre, then much more commonly used in aerospace applications than in cars, suited Barnard’s design down to the ground, and so the first carbon car was born.

There were some fringe benefits. Carbon fibre is incredibly light – about a third the weight of a steel structure of similar strength. It’s also, if you make it right, incredibly strong. Irish driver John Watson suffered a serious crash in Barnard’s first carbon McLaren at the Italian Grand Prix in 1981, and walked away without injury from an accident that, in an aluminium car, would probably have killed him.

Since then, carbon fibre has been something of a holy grail for car making. All Formula 1 cars are made of it, as are IndyCars, Le Mans racers, and many more. Road cars, though? Generally, carbon fibre has been limited to ultra-high-performance models. McLaren got there first, again – its epochal 1992 F1 road car had a chassis made entirely of carbon, but then again it could afford to do that. The F1 cost more than €1 million when it was new, and €30 million would today only just get you into the (central) driver’s seat.

The cost of making a carbon car has come down considerably, by a factor of 10 or more, but it’s still expensive stuff and the way in which it is made isn’t necessarily conducive to mass production. That’s not the only reason we’re not all rolling around in light, strong carbon cars, however. There’s another problem, which is that carbon makes it harder for car makers to hit their recyclability targets. With ever-growing pressure to build and use cars in a “circular economy”, that simply won’t fly.

Steel yourself

François Roudier, who manages communications for Peugeot in France, says: “Vehicles today are made up of 70 per cent by mass of metallic materials, 60 per cent of which is steel. Replacing it with aluminium, which is lighter, is counterproductive in terms of CO2 emissions because the carbon content of aluminium is higher than that of steel. Replacing it with composite materials, such as carbon fibre, is counterproductive in terms of vehicle recyclability because steel is almost entirely recycled, unlike composites, which are not.”

So we’re stuck with heavy steel structures, at a time when we desperately need cars to be smaller, lighter, and more efficient?

Maybe not. Bcomp is a Swiss-based company that specialises not merely in carbon fibre construction, but in making carbon fibre from natural fibres, which have a much lower impact on the environment. This is achieved through weight reduction, dematerialisation, renewable raw materials, and more clearly viable end-of-life options. They offer significantly higher vibration damping and can reduce the risk of sharp shattering – traditional carbon fibre can explode like glass if it’s poorly made or impacted in a specific way.

Bcomp’s carbon fibre uses flax fibres. When these fibres are layered into a structure, and set with a resin, they become incredibly strong, but because they’re plant-based, they have effectively absorbed carbon from the atmosphere before being used – so rather than traditional carbon fibre, this stuff is carbon-absorbing fibre. The flax also acts as a rotational crop to improve soil health and subsequent harvests, and is indigenous to its growth areas, which results in low water and fertiliser requirements for long-term sustainability. Once the parts are no longer needed, claims Bcomp, the material can be recycled or used for energy recovery in incineration plants.

Corporate interest

This week, Bcomp has announced that it has received $35-million in Series B funding. That funding, of course, comes from a variety of sources, but it’s notable that companies such as BMW, Volvo and Porsche (not to mention Airbus) are dipping their hands into their corporate pockets to fund Bcomp.

“The success of this investment round is testament to the many years of hard work from the whole team, paving the way for us to scale Bcomp to an entirely new level. We put a very strong focus on attracting strategic investors, but never could I have imagined closing the round with some of the most prestigious venture capitalists from the automotive, aerospace, mobility, impact- and finance sectors. The strong interest from our targeted large-scale mobility markets is clear. Now is the time to scale our production and deploy our global strategy. We are very excited to open this new chapter with the great support of our new partners, developing Bcomp as the global leader of sustainable lightweight material solutions, and making our contribution to the circular economy,” says Bcomp chief executive Christian Fischer.

The technology being used by Bcomp isn’t pie-in-the-laboratory-sky, either. It’s already being used on high-performance test vehicles, including BMW’s iFE.20 Formula E and M4 DTM race cars, as well as Porsche’s Cayman 718 GT4 CS and its Mission R electric racing concept car. Volvo, meanwhile, is expected to use Bcomp’s material for most of the interior panels of the Polestar 5 electric saloon, which is expected to be launched in 2024.

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