Taking the load off the environment

  • Jonathan Fox-Rubin

    Photo courtesy FiberForce
  BASALT, Colorado — Jonathan Fox-Rubin wants to start a revolution in car manufacturing. In his sunlit office in western Colorado he explains his approach to the weighty question of how to make cars easier on the environment: He goes straight to the body of the car.

If the skeletal system of automobiles can be made lighter, he says, environmental benefits will follow. "Saving weight translates directly into saved fuel, and to reduced materials used by the car throughout its lifetime," he says.

His company, Fiberforge, owns the patent for carbon fiber thermoplastic, a lightweight, strong material that can replace steel car frames. The change, like sleek plastic surgery, would be invisible to consumers — but it would take a significant load off the bodies of their cars.

"Your average steel car weighs 4,000 pounds," Fox-Rubin says. "Say you take a car and pull out 500 pounds in the structure. Then your tires don’t need to be as big, your brakes don’t need to be as big, your engine doesn’t need to be as big."

Different carbon fiber composites have been in the marketplace for years, but have been used only in Formula One racing cars and luxury automobiles with price tags in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fox-Rubin wants to get his material into mass-produced cars from Detroit to Tokyo.

Fifteen hundred miles from Detroit, the small mountain town of Basalt may seem an unlikely place to transform automobile design. Then again, at one point, Fox-Rubin seemed an unlikely candidate for the job. "I was a problem child, not doing my homework, having fun, working on motorized things," he explains.

He grew up in Woody Creek, Colo., just up the Roaring Fork Valley from where he now works. In high school, he was considered the perfect candidate for vocational school. "I wasn’t much of a college-bound kid," he says. "The non-college kids were encouraged to go to the auto shop." When Fox-Rubin was a junior, he won a statewide competition for auto mechanics.

Fox-Rubin became a certified mechanic. But after spending four years under the hood, he realized cars were poorly designed. Environmental controls usually failed early in a vehicle’s life.

In hopes of rectifying the flaws he saw, he enrolled in the mechanical engineering program at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In college, his environmental awareness grew, and he began to consider cars’ impact on the environment from the perspective of an engineer rather than a mechanic. He eventually earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan Automotive Laboratory, focusing his studies on reducing car emissions and air pollution.

He assumed he would stay in academia, but a message from home changed his career path. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Old Snowmass, Colo., recruited him to come back to the Roaring Fork Valley and work on creating the Hypercar, a lightweight, hybrid aerodynamic vehicle.

After working on several permutations of the Hypercar concept, Fox-Rubin separated the project from the Rocky Mountain Institute. Hypercar then became Fiberforge, because Fox-Rubin decided that focusing on carbon fiber thermoplastic technology was the most viable way for his company to remain competitive in the market.

Since carbon fiber doesn’t rust, the lifetime of the car could be much longer. Even as the rest of the car deteriorates, the frame could be used again. "You could put on new body panels and refurbish the drive train and sell it on the secondary market," he explains. "It’s recyclable." Since carbon fiber thermoplastic absorbs energy five to ten times better than steel and aluminum, he says, the material can also make cars significantly safer.

Fiberforge is at least several years away from becoming an applied technology. It’s still in the testing phase; investors have agreed to fund Fox-Rubin and his team of 20 employees until the product is ready for production. The primary obstacle remains the high cost of manufacture. Steel varies from sixty cents to several dollars a pound, while carbon fiber costs around 10 dollars a pound.

Professionals in the auto industry have struggled with the cost of the technology as well, and they’re skeptical that Fox-Rubin can make his product inexpensive enough for assembly-line manufactured vehicles.

"We’ve been working for years on the use of carbon fiber reinforced composites. It’s too expensive," says Mike Vaughn, technology and public affairs manager for Ford Motor Company. "We applaud Fox-Rubin and wish him well — if he can come up with a way to do it affordably, the industry would bust a path to his door," he says.

Fox-Rubin is confidently preparing for the onslaught. "We have our special recipe," he says.

Despite the uncertainties, Fox-Rubin has been traveling the globe, meeting with automakers in hopes of selling them his product.

Ultimately, he hopes his technology will become part of gas-electric hybrids or renewable-fuels cars. "My vision is that Fiberforge is a key that will unlock the future of auto mobility," he says. "That future is when all cars are environmentally responsible."

The author is a freelance writer and radio reporter living in Old Snowmass, Colorado.