Grant County best place in world for carbon fiber production

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When BMW (Bavarian Motor Works) decided to make an electric car, it went about developing the project meticulously to ensure long-term success. Everything had to be just right.

One of those things was the right place to produce the carbon fiber that would be needed for the carbon fiber reinforced plastic to fabricate the body components for the BMW i3 and BMW i8. After a world-wide search, BMW settled on Moses Lake as that place.

The result is the SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers plant at 8781 Randolph Road NE. It is a joint venture between BMW Group and SGL Group (The Carbon Company). SGL Group contributes its know-how in high performance materials and its experience with carbon fiber-based materials. BMW contributes its know-how in lightweight automotive design and manufacturing.

According to Dennis Baumann, head of business development for SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers, the BMW i3 and BMW i8 will be on the market in late 2013 and early 2014. The i3 is a battery-powered sedan. The BMW i8 is a sports car with plug-in hybrid drive.

As BMW started to explore an electric car, Baumann noted, discussion turned to sustainability. There was no reason to build an electric car that wouldn't be around for years. It needed to be lightweight to be competitive. That meant carbon fiber plastics for the body parts.

BMW wanted those plastics to be produced with green energy, and it needed to be the most reasonably priced green energy. It also needed to be reliable, available 24/7 without outages.

BMW settled on the hydro power that is produced by the Grant County Public Utility District. The Columbia River relentlessly produces electricity at the PUD's Wanapum and Priest Rapids dams with no end in sight.

"Solar power is good, but the sun isn't always shining," Baumann said. "Wind power is good, but the wind isn't always blowing."

Another need was a dry climate, mostly sunny with little rain. Humid climates can hinder carbon fiber production.

"Carbon fiber is highly sensitive," Baumann said.

Yet another need for BMW was a location where its executives and staff would not struggle to communicate. China would not have worked. English-speaking locales would.

"We looked all over the world," Baumann said. "There were two finalists, a French-speaking country and Moses Lake."

The more BMW looked at Moses Lake, the more company officials liked it. And Moses Lake liked BMW.

"We found a very supportive, business-friendly environment in Mose Lake," Baumann said.

Topographically, Moses Lake is not at all like Germany. There are no desert regions in Germany, and space is limited. There is no forest here.

"I was impressed with the wide open spaces in Moses Lake," said Baumann, who visited a dozen times in 2011. "The land is flat, and you can see for miles and miles."

Ground was broken for the Moses Lake plant on July 7, 2010. An official opening ceremony was held on Sept. 1 of that year. The first carbon fiber was produced 49 weeks after ground breaking.

There was an investment of $100 million, and 80 new jobs were created in this initial phase of SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers. The plant was built on a 60-acre site, but the company has an option for additional land. According to Baumann, it is the most cost-efficient carbon fiber plant, using the latest technologies.

Carbon fibers are not something new, Baumann noted. They've been used in tennis racquets, golf clubs and bicycles. The BMW i3 and BMW i8 are simply new applications.

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