Among the world’s most technologically advanced and efficient vehicles, there is one that gains power from the great river of the West, the Columbia. That power is embedded in its very fiber, its frame and structure. The energy that flows through our valley can move the world.
This, truly, is not blowing smoke. The efficiency of automobiles stems largely from their weight, or lack of it. Lightweight vehicles require revolutionary materials, and that industrial revolution is rising from the Columbia Basin, using its great resource — plentiful, inexpensive, thoroughly renewable hydroelectricity.
That was brought home this week with the worldwide introduction of the BMW i3, an electric vehicle assembled with an aluminum “drive module” coupled to a “life module,” or passenger compartment, made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic. It is the first of its kind, strong but very light, so it can be propelled greater distances by a smaller and lighter battery. The i3 weighs 2,700 pounds, which is 600 pounds lighter than a Nissan Leaf, for example. The i3 has a “real world” range of 80 to 100 miles per charge. It can be recharged on a 220-volt household circuit in three hours, or in 30 minutes with a SAE DC fast charger.
The i3 goes farther with a smaller battery because of the weight savings provided by its carbon-fiber based structure. The carbon fiber is manufactured at the SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers/BMW Group plant at Moses Lake, powered by Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams. Synthetic fibers are passed through a series of ovens with intense heat and transformed into a light, fine black thread, which is spooled and shipped to Germany, woven into fabric and molded in resin. It makes structure and body parts stronger than steel and half the weight. The BMW i3 is the first mass-produced electric vehicle manufactured from carbon fiber reinforced plastic. The estimated weight savings is 500 pounds, which is slightly more than its 450-pound lithium-ion battery.
The BMW i3 is powered by a 170-horsepower motor that take it to 60 miles per hour in 7 seconds, not quite head-snapping sports car stuff, but good. Those automotive reviewers who have driven the i3 are complimentary. Its structure provides a roomy and safe interior, with a low center of gravity, says BMW. The cost when the car debuts in the United States next year will be $41,350, before federal subsidies.
BMW makes it a major point that the manufacturing process for the i3 is “sustainable.” A major feature of that is that the hydroelectricity that powers the carbon fiber ovens is renewable and sustainable and emits no greenhouse gases. It’s a point emphasized by Gov. Jay Inslee at the i3 unveiling in New York. “The more carbon that goes into the car, the less goes into the atmosphere,” Inslee said, correctly.
The world is making use of our great resource, harnessed by the dams of the Columbia, to produce valued products more efficiently. That for years has included aluminum, and now carbon fiber. And those products in turn, make the world more efficient. You can move more, farther, with less.
“This is a fantastic place,” said SGL plant manager Steve Swanson on a company video, as he points down the Columbia. He referred to the abundance of inexpensive energy. He is absolutely right.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.