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商业 - 汽车

汽车材料革命,碳纤维成新宠

Alex Taylor III 2011年09月08日

碳纤维的重量只有钢铁的2/3,而强度却是钢铁的5倍。这种神奇的材料在汽车制造业中正扮演着越来越重要的角色。

    你还记得1967年电影《毕业生》(The Graduate)中的这段对白吗?

    麦克尼先生:我只想对你说一个词,就一个词。

    本杰明•布拉多克:好的,先生。

    麦克尼先生:你在听我说吗?

    本杰明:我听着呢。

    麦克尼先生:塑料。

    时至今日,如果本杰明还能得到麦克尼的建议,答案很可能就是“碳纤维” —— 一个足以让他赌上后半生的全新领域。

    碳纤维的重量只有钢铁的2/3,而强度却是钢铁的5倍。这种神奇的材料在汽车制造业中正扮演着越来越重要的角色。如果采用碳纤维大批量生产汽车成为可能,燃油经济性将会得到显著改善,而无须依赖新型燃料和新引擎技术的开发。因为用碳纤维代替钢铁制造汽车将大大减轻车身的整体重量。

    汽车制造商们对这一设想的可行性深信不疑,并且跃跃欲试。宝马汽车公司(BMW)就是个典型的例子。上周,宝马汽车董事局主席诺伯特•雷瑟夫从慕尼黑飞往纽约,参加一个退休晚宴。之后,他又一路向西,长途飞行6,000英里,直奔华盛顿,出席一家碳纤维制造厂的开业典礼。这家工厂由宝马和另外一家公司联合创办。对于一项未经验证的新技术来说,雷瑟夫的此次飞行之旅的确可以称得上是大动干戈。

    首先将细密的碳纤维丝纺成纱线,并将纱线织成布料。然后,将织成的布料放入模具,加入树脂使其硬化,于是便制造出这种具有非凡特质的新型材料——碳纤维。

    碳纤维不仅用于制造钓鱼竿和网球拍,还大量应用于飞机制造业,如梦幻波音喷射客机787(Boeing 787 Dreamliner)以及一级方程式赛车车体制造。多款高性能汽车,如宝马M6和雪佛兰科尔维特(Chevrolet Corvette),车体外板均采用碳纤维材料。不仅如此,它还取代了车内装饰用的薄木板和铝制材料,成为新的装饰材料。

    美中不足的是,碳纤维的大规模应用目前还无法实现。首要的原因就在于这种材料的造价太高。据估计,一磅碳纤维价值10美元。虽然较之十年前的一磅150美元已经便宜了很多,但与一磅钢铁的价格相比,仍旧贵了10至20倍。

    另一方面的原因是,碳纤维的制造过程费时费力,很难实现大规模生产;而且,其固化时间也需要数小时。此外,碳纤维无法降解,因此无法循环再利用。

    这些不利因素并未阻止宝马进军碳纤维制造领域的步伐。在美国华盛顿州,西雅图以东180英里处,宝马正投资1亿美元,建设一家碳纤维制造厂。该厂由宝马和德国西格里碳素集团(SGL Carbon SE)联合创办并经营,计划于本月开始生产碳纤维丝。碳纤维丝随后将运往位于德国的另一家合资企业,加工成轻型纤维织物。

    Remember this exchange from 1967's The Graduate?

    Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

    Benjamin Braddock: Yes, sir.

    Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

    Benjamin: Yes, I am.

    Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

    These days, if Ben were to get advice from Mr. McGuire about a new field to stake his future on, the answer could be "carbon fiber."

    The miracle material, two-thirds the weight of steel yet five times stronger, is increasingly finding its way into automobiles. If a means can be found to use it in mass-production vehicles, it would result in dramatically improved fuel economy without resorting to exotic new fuels and engine technologies. Replacing the steel in a car with carbon fiber would shave hundreds of pounds off its weight.

    Automakers are betting they can make it work, BMW in particular. After jetting into New York from Munich last week for a retirement dinner, BMW chairman Norbert Reithofer kept heading west to Washington State, tacking another 6,000 miles onto his trip to open a new factory there co-owned by BMW that manufactures carbon fibers. That's a lot of frequent flyer miles for an unproven technology.

    Carbon fiber consists of thin strands of carbon woven into a yarn that in turn can be made into cloth. The cloth in turn is then laid over a mold and stiffened with resin to produce a sheet of material with remarkable properties.

    Carbon fiber has found its way into fishing rods and tennis rackets, and in larger quantities into airplanes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the bodies of Formula One racecars. A couple of high-end performance cars like the BMW M6 and Chevrolet Corvette have carbon fiber body panels, and the material is used for interior trim in the place of wood veneers or aluminum.

    But high-volume applications have eluded carbon fibers. For one thing, the material is expensive. According to published estimates, carbon fiber costs about $10 a pound. That's a lot cheaper than the $150 a pound it cost a decade ago but still ten to 20 times more than a pound of steel.

    For another, the construction process is laborious and can't easily be scaled up. Curing time can take hours. Moreover, carbon fibers can't be recycled because carbon composites don't corrode.

    That hasn't deterred BMW, which is investing $100 million to build a carbon fiber factory in Washington State, 180 miles east of Seattle. The factory is co-owned and operated by a German company, SGL Carbon SE. Production of carbon fiber thread is starting this month. The fibers will be processed into lightweight fabrics at a second joint venture site in Germany.

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