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Ford seeks to lighten cars, improve mpg, with carbon fiber

A European automotive materials research consortium demonstrated a carbon fiber hood on a Ford Focus, using production techniques that could make the advanced material practical for mass market production vehicles.

Ford showed off this Focus with a carbon fiber-reinforced hood at a materials conference in Germany. Ford

Exotic cars, such as the McLaren MP4-12C, boast lightweight bodies made entirely of carbon fiber-reinforced panels, yet a demonstration by Ford of a carbon fiber hood suggests that mass commercialization of this advanced material will trickle out on a piece-by-piece basis.

Carbon fiber-reinforced components can weigh less than half of their steel equivalents, while exhibiting similar strength. However, carbon fiber is currently too time-consuming and expensive to produce for use in affordable, mass market cars. BMW currently builds a carbon fiber roof over the cabin of its M3 performance vehicle, and is working with Daimler on developing a practical production process for carbon fiber body components.

Ford's European Research Centre worked with Hightech.NRW, a German research consortium dedicated to developing practical carbon fiber-based automotive components, to manufacture the Focus hood. Ford showed off the new component at the Composites Europe conference in Dusseldorf, Germany, touting the production process, which cut down time and cost to build the hood.

In Europe, Ford has partnered with Dow Automotive Systems to commercialize the new materials production process. Ford says the goal of this technology is to shed about 750 pounds from its production cars. This technology would take the curb weight of a 2013 Ford Focus from 2,948 pounds down to 2,198 pounds, a reduction that would increase fuel economy.

The research is also looking into sandwiching a foam core between carbon fiber-reinforced body panels to improve car-pedestrian collision safety.

The advent of carbon fiber-reinforced body panels on cars means an end to merely pulling out a ding or pounding out damage, but this material's strength also means it can handle small abuses, such as being smacked with a shopping cart, better than steel.