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Here comes the everyday carbon fiber car

Carbon fiber: It's in tennis rackets, planes and soon in cars, because it weighs less, and the cost is going down.

Five times stronger than steel and a heck of a lot lighter, carbon fiber is making its way into more cars than ever before.

Carbon fiber has been used to make car bodies but in limited ways: McLaren annually makes a few hundred sports cars from it and hobbyists make shells to transform Volkswagens into something resembling a Hot Wheels toys.

But since carbon fiber is stronger, tougher and lighter than steel and can increase fuel efficiency because of its lower weight, major manufacturers are finally getting in on trend.

BMW is ramping up production on the M6, according to Zsolt Rumy, CEO of Zoltek Companies, a St. Louis-based manufacturer of carbon fiber and supplier to BMW. The M6 has carbon fiber front and rear bumpers, a carbon roof, and carbon beams and internal structures. The cars have begun to roll out in Europe, and some will eventually come to the U.S. In 2007, BMW will make around 60 of them a day.

"In the Corvette, GM is also starting to use carbon fiber," Rumy said during a presentation at the ThinkEquity Partners Growth Equity Conference being held in San Francisco this week.

Carbon fiber has been a market waiting to take off for years. It was invented for the aircraft industry a few decades ago and spread into sporting goods and other markets but in a limited fashion. It wasn't until 2005 that demand really accelerated, Rumy said. One of the big market drivers turned out to be wind turbines, which have 50-meter-long carbon fiber blades.

"It is five times stronger than steel and two times as stiff as steel," Rumy said.

New aircraft designs helped drive demand as well. The Boeing 787 is 60 percent carbon fiber, and the much-anticipated Airbus A380 is 50 percent carbon fiber.

Zoltek, which is not profitable, has long had a goal of bringing down carbon fiber pricing to $5 a pound. A recent spike in the cost of raw materials, however, has bumped the price of carbon fiber to $8.50 a pound.

Still, that price is low enough to drive demand, or at least to not crimp it as companies learn to work with the material. "The cost of carbon fiber is no longer the problem," he said. Zoltek had capacity to make 7 million pounds a year in 2005 and will expand that to 30 million pounds a year by 2008.

Large manufacturers, such as Formosa Plastics (which owns chipmaker Via Technologies) are also getting into the market, he said.

The aerospace industry currently consumes about 41 percent of the carbon fiber made, but that will drop to 29 percent by 2009.

Demand, in fact, could lead to slight shortages over the next few years, Rumy said.