Green and Lean at the Tokyo Motor Show

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With oil trading at over $87 a barrel, the 40th Annual Tokyo Motor Show is set to open in an environment of record-high gas prices. Hybrids, fuel cells, biofuels, and electric vehicles will all make appearances as manufacturers hedge their bets on which technologies will take off, but making lighter-weight vehicles aimed at improving fuel efficiency is an idea numerous automakers will be touting this year as well.

The secret to lighter vehicles is carbon fiber. Weighing only about a fifth as much as steel, carbon fiber is just as rigid and strong as its metallic precursor. Toyota plans to unveil its 1/X (“one Xth”) concept hybrid; thanks to its carbon-fiber body, the vehicle weighs 67 percent less than the Prius. BMW, meanwhile, will show off its revival of the tii label with the trimmed-down Concept 1 Series tii, which sports carbon fiber in the hood and bodywork. As Ewdin Merner of Atlantis Investment Research Corp. told Bloomberg, “They are all trying to cut weight. With gas prices getting higher, the carmakers are trying to improve mileage with lighter materials or thinner pieces of metal.”

Cost is still the number one limiting factor to using carbon fiber in mass production; estimates put its cost in vehicle manufacturing at 100 times that of steel. Toray, Japan’s largest carbon fiber manufacturer, would not comment on the material’s cost but did tell Bloomberg the company is investing $175 million dollars in a research plant to make the material for cars.

Domestic car manufacturers are also looking into incorporating the carbon composite into production and have been funding research aimed at discovering how to make the process economically feasible. Last year, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in conjunction with Ford (F), General Motors (GM), and DaimlerChrysler (DAI), said they were working to develop high-volume renewable carbon-fiber feedstocks. At the time, Bob Norris, leader of the lab’s polymer matrix composites group, said the consortium was trying to lower the cost of production to $3-$5 per pound from $8-$10 per pound. Like so many clean technologies, the real industry shift will start in the lab.

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