The carbon fiber then is sized and dried before it is spooled onto bobbins in a winding process, using what Bolden says is proprietary equipment.

The secretive nature of the equipment may be due to the fact twisted or folded carbon fiber would result in short lengths rather than long continuous pieces needed to bring the i model’s lifecells to fruition.

Some 1.7 miles (2.7 km) of carbon fiber are on each 20-lb. (9-kg) spool, which are individually wrapped, then placed with other spools in cardboard boxes that are shipped to Wackersdorf. It stitches the carbon fiber into a fabric, then cuts it into sheets that are then impregnated with resin.

These carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic sheets then go on to BMW plants in Landshut and Leipzig, Germany, where they are fabricated into 3-dimensional lifecells.

The weight of the resulting carbon fiber is 50% less than that of the PAN at the start of the process, SGL says, noting each strand of carbon fiber on a spool has 50,000 filaments, each approximately one-seventh the thickness of a human hair.

SGL has had two lines up and running here since September 2011, employing 80 workers. The second facility is weeks away from coming online, housing lines three and four. SGL announced last week it soon will begin construction on a third building set to open in early 2015 with lines five and six. At that point the complex will employ 200 workers.

Annual output of the two lines in each building is 3,000 tons (2,722 t). Lines 1 and 2 have been operating 24 hours per day, seven days a week, with downtime only for cleaning and repairs, Bolden says.

BMW says the addition of the fifth and sixth lines will support the proliferation of carbon fiber into additional models. The automaker is short on specifics for now, but suggests reports the next-generation 7-Series will utilize carbon-fiber parts are accurate.

A senior BMW official also tells WardsAuto the automaker would be willing to sell carbon fiber to other automakers, providing it has excess capacity. For now, BMW intends to use all 9,000 tons (8,165 t) of carbon fiber from Moses Lake for its own vehicles.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com