MOSES LAKE – By early next year, drawn by the cheap and renewable hydroelectricity of Eastern Washington, this state will have “the largest carbon fiber plant on Earth,” according to a German executive leading the project.
Amid the dirt fields outside this modest farming town, where a stiff wind powers rows of towering windmills and blows tumbleweeds across the highway, a gleaming $200 million factory already makes the carbon fiber threads that become the tough carbon composite shell of BMW’s i-series electric and hybrid cars.
An additional $100 million investment announced Friday, coupled with an earlier expansion now nearly complete, will triple the plant’s current annual capacity to 9,000 tons of carbon fiber.
That expanded output will equal about one-fifth of the total global demand for carbon fiber today, making the 4-year-old joint venture between BMW and German carbon materials producer SGL the world’s single biggest producer of the fiber, said Juergen Koehler, SGL’s chief executive.
The plant will exclusively feed BMW’s i-series, including the new luxury i8 hybrid sports car that goes on sale in the U.S. in August.
“This is just the beginning of a carbon fiber industrial cluster in the state of Washington,” Gov. Jay Inslee said at a groundbreaking ceremony Friday attended by some 20 journalists from Germany and Japan who were fresh from i8’s press launch in Los Angeles.
The expansion will increase employment at the plant from about 125 to 200, with a pay scale starting at $17 an hour and rising to $22 an hour for production workers.
Inslee said a federal grant of $150,000 is being deployed to train 135 people in advanced manufacturing techniques at local colleges.
The plant has grown rapidly, with two production lines in one building humming today and two more in a second building set to start rolling within a couple of months. A third building will now be built to house the fifth and sixth production lines.
“It was a real challenge to grow at this pace,” Koehler said. “Four years ago, this was grassland. Nobody ever has done what is happening here.”
The BMW models represent the first extensive use of structural carbon fiber for mass-produced cars.
SGL’s Koehler touted it as “a game-changer for the automotive industry, a game-changer for the carbon fiber industry.”
The highly automated production lines operate 24/7, 360 days a year, stopping only at Christmas for maintenance.
At one end of the 700-yard production line, silvery white ribbons of polyacrylonitrile supplied by Mitsubishi of Japan snake toward the ceiling from large boxes, pulled gently by automated rollers. Each ribbon is made from 50,000 filaments laced together.
The ribbons go through four ovens, changing color gradually to yellow, then burnt copper, then brown and finally black. This oxidized thread will no longer burn, and in the next stage it is carbonized in two furnaces at up to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the far end of the line, large bobbins of black carbon fiber ribbon emerge. These are shipped by truck to Seattle and then by sea to Germany, where BMW makes the car shell.
BMW spent $2 billion developing the i3 compact electric car and the i8 high-end hybrid sports car, which has a sales price starting at $135,700.
The i8 concept is a “sustainable car” with a low carbon footprint and yet is as powerful as a top-of-the-line, gas-powered BMW.
The dashboard is made from a renewable plant fiber, the seat trims from recycled plastic bottles.
Offsetting the heavy weight of the car’s lithium-ion battery, the carbon fiber produced in Moses Lake provides the shell for the passenger cabin, which is then sheathed in thermoplastic exterior panels.
Klaus Draeger, a member of BMW’s eight-member board of management, said the carmaker chose Eastern Washington for its cheap hydropower and to create a “green” supply chain using sustainable energy.
“To produce carbon fiber you need energy, you need electricity. We have here very competitive electricity costs,” Draeger said. “At least as important is to have this energy as renewable energy. The energy here is clean energy.”
Echoing the green environmentalist message, Inslee lauded the project as “an international effort to revolutionize our transportation system and develop a clean energy system to literally save the planet.”
“Today the center of advanced technology in our effort to build a clean planet is Moses Lake, Washington,” said Inslee.