German carmaker BMW AG and a European carbon manufacturing company celebrated the opening of a new plant to produce carbon fibers for the automotive industry on Thursday.
Drawn to the region by cheap hydropower and Washington state's renewable energy efforts, the SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers plant could become the largest facility of its kind in the world because of strong demand for the composites.
The plant is a $100 million partnership of BMW and SGL Group, one of the world's leading manufacturers of carbon-based products.
"We just might be witnessing a piece of industrial history that is being made here," SGL Group CEO Robert Koehler said.
Depending on their application, carbon fibers can be lighter, stronger and far more durable than many metals. Boeing Co.'s new 787 jetliner is mostly made out of the material, and the composites _ long a force in some car racing circuits _ are increasingly being used in the commercial automotive industry.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire lobbied hard for the plant to be built in her state, where cheap hydropower from central Washington's Columbia River dams is drawing more high-tech companies and manufacturers to the region.
"We share the same values," she said. "We share the value of clean energy for tomorrow. That's the future. That's where jobs are."
Norbert Reithofer, BMW chairman, acknowledged that Washington's cheap power from renewable resources and its renewable energy incentives were factors in the decision to locate in Moses Lake.
"This is very important to us," he said. "At the BMW Group, we are thinking about sustainable mobility for tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. We believe environmental responsibility extends beyond the car itself to the entire value chain. Because of this, sustainable vehicle production is becoming more and more important."
Inside the plant, strands of a high-grade polymer acrylic fabric, like high-grade nylon, weaved through an assembly line to be oxidized at high temperatures and converted from white silky strands into black carbon fibers. There are roughly 50,000 filaments in each nylon bundle, and one filament is just a fraction the size of a human hair.
Initially, the carbon fibers manufactured in the plant will go into reinforced plastic parts for BMW's Megacity vehicle, the BMW i3, a high-tech electric car scheduled for release in late 2013. A plug-in hybrid vehicle to be released later, the BMW i8, also will utilize carbon fibers from the plant.
About 660 pounds of carbon fiber go into a single car frame. Because of the light weight of the carbon fibers, the BMW vehicles will weigh a quarter-ton less than most fully electric cars, Reithofer said.
"Using carbon fiber in series production on this scale has never been done before. It is a bold move into new territory for the BMW Group and for the entire auto industry," he said.
The plant currently employs about 80 people, but expansions are planned.
The new high-tech economy is a change for Moses Lake and surrounding Grant County, an area long reliant on agriculture as its economic driver. Recent entries to the local economy alongside potato and onion fields include a facility to make solar cell materials and several electricity-intensive computer server farms.
State Rep. Judy Warnick, a Republican from Moses Lake, called the opening "exciting."
"What's impressed me is that we are being recognized in the world, not only for our hydropower, but also our labor force, and that Washington state is a good place to do business," she said.
Warnick also noted the speedy permitting process for the plant, which was constructed in 10 months.
"I'd like to see that replicated in other areas in the state," she said, "because that's the way we bring jobs and pull ourselves out of this budget crisis."