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Carbon Fiber Makes World’s First Fuel-Cell Bus Possible

Even as the debate over whether autonomous vehicles will be the norm in our lifetimes, there is little debate that we are quickly moving away from fossil fuels in favor of fuel cells and electric motors. Composite materials, especially carbon fiber, are largely responsible for making it possible. The world’s first mass-produced fuel-cell bus is but one example.

According to a November piece published by Composites World, Toyota has just announced a new mass-produced city bus that relies on a fuel cell to power it rather than an internal combustion engine. One of the key components of the bus is on ultramodern roof that is made with a combination of carbon fiber, lightweight plastics, and aluminum. The roof significantly reduces the weight load of the bus without compromising its integrity.

For the record, the Toyota bus is not the first bus powered by fuel-cell technology. What makes Toyota’s achievement important is that the bus is the first one to be mass-produced by a major manufacturer. Why is this important? Because mass production signifies that the cost has come down enough to make the finished product commercially viable. The fact that Toyota is willing to mass-produce the bus indicates they know they can make money on the deal. How much longer before they can build a viable passenger vehicle?

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  • Tackling the Cost Issue

Automotive industry executives have been pursuing composite materials since they were first introduced in the 1960s. Widespread adoption of composites has been prohibited by manufacturing costs. In simple terms, it costs a lot to produce carbon fiber parts for automotive applications. What Toyota has done changes the game. Rather than relying completely on a carbon fiber roof – which would not have been affordable for mass production – they combined carbon fiber with less expensive plastics and aluminum.

Toyota worked with a Japanese composites company known as Toho Tenax Co. to come up with the roof. Designers created a roof with a visually appealing surface that, despite its complex shape, is manufactured as a single piece. One-piece construction increases structural integrity while at the same time reducing maintenance and upkeep costs.

One-piece construction also allows designers to concentrate on fuel efficiency by making the roof as streamlined as possible. Though Toyota has not released specific numbers, it’s logical to assume that the amount of fuel savings afforded by the roof design is one of the factors that makes the bus a good choice for mass production.

  • On-Board Hydrogen Tanks Needed

The need for a better roof may not be apparent to someone who does not know how fuel-cell technology works. The most important thing to know is that Toyota’s new mass-produced bus features high-pressure hydrogen tanks situated in the top portion of the vehicle’s structure. If Toyota couldn’t find a way to otherwise reduce the weight of the bus, the heavy hydrogen tanks would have been a problem.

Rock West Composites, a Utah company that sells carbon fiber products including tubing and sheets, says that carbon fiber is the perfect material for cutting weight while maintaining structural integrity. Combining carbon fiber with lightweight plastics offers Toyota the weight reduction it needs to compensate for heavy hydrogen tanks.

Our pursuit of new technologies that will lead to the obsolescence of internal combustion engines is getting closer and closer to the finish line. Thanks to composite materials like carbon fiber, engineers are coming up with new ways to make vehicles lighter yet still as strong. And as Toyota has demonstrated, their efforts are opening the door to things like fuel-cell buses and electric cars.