Cradle-to-grave sustainability is at the core of BMW's new i3


July 8, 2013

With a bubble-like urban design, the i3 includes copious amounts of glass and light-weight carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP)

With a bubble-like urban design, the i3 includes copious amounts of glass and light-weight carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP)

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When the i3 concept was unveiled alongside the i8 coupe concept back in 2011, it was the i8 that hogged the spotlight in commercials and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. But BMW engineers were hard at work in Germany developing real world production plans for the i3 and BMW is now set to put its first fully electric vehicle into mass production by the end of 2013. But the wee urban EV plays only a small part in BMW’s overall sustainability program.

To quickly recap, the i3 is designed as a fully electric inner city four seater. Using BMW’s eDrive technology, the i3 will have a range of around 130 to 160 km (80 to 100 mi), which means most urban users at which it is targeted will only have to recharge it every two or three days. Generating 125 kW (170 hp) of power to the rear wheels and 250 Nm of torque (184.4 lb.ft), BMW reports performance figures of 0 to 100 km/h (62 mph) in eight seconds and a top speed estimated at 150 km/h (93 mph).

The company claims the i3's range can be increased to 200 km (124 mi) through its “EcoPro” modes (Eco Pro and Eco Pro+), while a “range extender” will also be available as an optional extra that will add another 130 km (80 mi) to the vehicle’s range. The i3 can be fully recharged in six hours via a standard outlet, or to an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes using a fast charger.

Battery issues

Batteries, fickle things that they are, function best at room temperature, with heat and cold significantly affecting their performance. But since most cars aren't driven indoors, BMW has developed a system designed to keep the i3’s battery in the sweet zone, which in turn increases battery life and range. The intelligent heating/cooling system uses air conditioning coolant to cool the battery when things are heating up, and when things turn polar, a pre-heater warms the battery to optimal operating temperatures while plugged in. BMW claims this system helps ensure the lithium-ion battery should last the lifetime of the car.

Batteries are considered the weakest link in the sustainability chain and highly undesirable as a recyclable component. BMW again recognized this as a long term sustainability issue and set in motion a plan to repurpose, or re-use i3 batteries. After roughly 1,000 charging cycles the i3's batteries are serviced and put to use as short term solar storage units for residential energy consumption. On a commercial level, several batteries can be linked together to form either large scale energy storage units or brought into the grid to act as supplemental power banks.

Increasing drive range is the critical moving target and ongoing challenge for manufacturers when it comes to electric vehicles. The smallest electrical device can decrease range, add several power sucking devices together and range can be drastically impacted. In the case of the i3, BMW addressed this niggling issue by incorporating items like a low-power heat pump system that the company claims saves 30 percent more power in traffic relative to a normal heater. In the cockpit LEDs are used to illuminate the cabin versus traditional low efficiency bulbs, further reducing power draw and increasing range.

CFRP brings weight reductions

Vehicle weight, another range-robbing factor was also on BMW's hit list when developing the i3. It makes widespread use of CFRP, which in addition to weight reduction, also offers advantages in terms of safety. Due to issues like cost, production line flexibility and overly complex manufacturing processes, CFRP has largely been limited to use in supercars like the Lamborghini Sesto Elemento. But over the past ten years, BMW has put millions of dollars and countless hours of research into making CFRP a viable option for mainstream production. TO that end, BMW claims it is the first manufacturer to have the facilities and manufacturing techniques in place to enable widespread use of CFRP in mainstream vehicles.

In keeping with its “cradle to grave” philosophy, BMW has also come up with what it claims is the world’s first CFRP recycling concept. Various body components, production waste and even parts from damaged i3’s will find their way back into production following a unique sorting process that separates “resinated” materials from non-resin parts. Excess CFRP cuttings, sans resin, that would normally be discarded are instead repurposed back into non-woven textiles and worked back into the vehicle. BMW claims around ten percent of the carbon fiber used in production of the i3 is derived from recycled materials.

Sustainability begins in the factory

Even before wheels hit the ground BMW, sought to make the manufacturing process as eco-friendly as possible. At BMW’s Leipzig shop (certified LEED Gold) in Germany, the company’s energy requirements are addressed via four wind power systems. The systems not only provide all the power necessary for production but actually over produce for the facility's requirements.

Producing 26 GWh a year, the four Nordex N100/2500 turbines develop a yearly surplus of up to 2 GWh. This excess power is then redirected out to other processes at the Leipzig site, further reducing its overall energy footprint. BMW reports the Leipzig facility garners another 50 percent savings in energy and 70 percent savings in water usage relative to its other more traditional manufacturing facilities.

At a dedicated facility in Moses Lake, Washington, BMW has partnered with SGL Group to fill all the i3's carbon fiber requirements. Producing carbon fiber since 2011, the hi-tech CFRP facility runs two lines, capable of producing 1,500 tonnes of fiber per year. Fibers are then shipped to the Wackersdorf Innovation Park where they are transformed into basic carbon fiber sheets. From there the sheets are shipped to the Bavarian villa of Landshut, and pressed into various CFRP components for the i3. BMW claims that in comparison to conventional CFRP production, CO2 output from the Moses Lake facility is roughly 50 percent less than its competitors.

Leipzig also participates in the forming process by transforming the sheets into their respective 3D forms. These 3D forms can then be assembled to form larger components with relative ease as compared to aluminum or sheet metal processes. According to BMW, this CFRP development allows for modification of parts at any time during the manufacturing process, resulting in faster redesign turnaround and less downtime as compared to traditional steel component reconfiguration.

BMW’s new pressing plant not only has the flexibility to adapt but is further designed to reduce the speed and time in which CFRP components are manufactured. Pre-formed parts are available in minutes thanks to the company’s proprietary manufacturing process that deletes the time-sucking phase of curing from the equation. Not only does BMW’s process reduce component output time, but parts such as a door frame can be processed with critical structural details already included. The advantage to this holistic process enables BMW to more quickly produce i3 components that are lighter, require less structural elements and less overall energy to produce.

Contributing to increased component bonding times, BMW developed a new CFRP-friendly adhesive. Whereas traditional fiber bonding required anywhere from 12 to 24 hours, the new adhesive can be processed in ninety seconds, and become hard in only 30 minutes. According to BMW, this represents a ten-fold reduction in processing over the traditional method. BMW also learned that by heating key adhesion areas they could increase the curing process by a factor of 32.

"LifeDrive Architecture"

BMWs new architecture for the i3 is premised around what it calls “LifeDrive Architecture.” The method essentially mounts the CFRP “life module” or passenger compartment, on to an aluminum chassis. Whereas the method of combining pod with frame is not new, what is new the use of a CFRP cocoon in the mix. The pod is then populated with seats, steering wheel, doors, etc and finished off with exterior body panels. The result is a cabin whose volume statistics are reported to exceed that of vehicles of a similar wheelbase.

The lower half of the architectural arrangement, where the i3’s lithium-ion battery is located underfloor, is a lightweight aluminum frame that holds the electric motor, transmission and differential. According to BMW, the i3 meets or exceeds safety requirements as a result of the aluminum subframe design and CFRP life-pod architecture.

In its first foray into the mass production of an electric vehicle, BMW has shown that its sustainability goals are about more than just the conveyance and production of the vehicle itself. From manufacturing to infrastructure, and recycling to end of life cycle strategies, the company is clearly demonstrating itself to be an industry leader when it comes to the implementation of sustainable processes in developing electric vehicles like the i3.

The i3 is scheduled to go into production at the end of 2013 and is expected to have price in Europe starting at around €40,000 (US$51,000).

The i3 and some of its features can be seen in the following video.

Source: BMW

About the Author
Angus MacKenzie Born on the cold, barren Canadian plains of Calgary, Alberta, Angus MacKenzie couldn’t decide between marketing, automotives or an entrepreneurial path - so he chose all three. With an education in automotives and marketing, Angus has rebuilt the carburetor on his 1963 Rambler Ambassador twice, gotten a speeding ticket in an F430 once, and driven & photographed everything from Lamborghinis to Maseratis to various German and Asian designs. When not writing, Angus has for the past six years been Editor-in-Chief for elemente, an internationally recognized architecture/design magazine. All articles by Angus MacKenzie

Amazing vehicle. Very well engineered. Excellent specs. However,.. "The i3 is scheduled to go into production at the end of 2013 and is expected to have price in Europe starting at around €40,000 (US$51,000)." And there in lies the problem.

The demographic will not support it, especially in this economic decline environment. Small cars = small price 90% of that market Rich people = luxury cars, don't care about economy. 90% of that market

For the remaining percentages, Small expensive cars come in two categories. 1. Hot/performance hatchbacks 90%, and 2. environmental statement vehicles 10%. The few Holywood millionaires that would trade their Prius for this to make a statement about how much they care for the environment is no justification for a production run.

About the only way this kind of vehicle can make sense is if a large corporation (FedEx, government, etc) signed a contract to lease 10,000 for their employees. Or if the respective country's government were to heavily subsidize private leases/purchases as some kind of carbon trading scheme.

The good news is Electrics can be much more affordable, and as fuel prices go up, so will availability of electric conversion kits for average cars. Meanwhile, with fuel prices as they are, the market will be rife with overpriced token electrics from every badge.


isn't it called "cradle to cradle"? "cradle to grave" is what we have now: producing and throw away. 100% recycling is what we want to achieve.


Its great to see BMW taking both electric vehicles and the 'cradle-to-cradle' concept seriously and I hope other OEM's follow suit. Yes, it is expensive as has been noted but then all innovative technologies are (my first mobile phone was approx $4,000 in 1990, approx $10,000 at today's prices!!) and the price will follow the usual curve. City councils around the world are providing free parking and charging for electric vehicles and it will not be long before petrol/diesels are banned from some central city areas. The initial high costs are a filip for car-sharing and pooling and are ushering in a new era of both formal and informal shared-ownership, short-term rental and other non-ownership schemes especially appealing to the young and those for whom a car is about transport and NOT status. The future has already arrived, and its electric!

Brendan Dunphy

I think it is way cool. I really like the design. If the price was lower, I would consider it for a future vehicle choice.

It does not seem all that different from what BMW did with the Mini Cooper, it is really nice but the price is on the high side.


BMW have almost cracked it - electric car for the masses? Oh dear, what's that? $50,000 you say? Ok, maybe I'll give it a miss and go buy a $10,000 Kia tin box.


Now this gets my interest. Quality and construction equal to modern aircraft. I would like to have seen more specs on the Range Extender, weight, passenger space, luggage storage size but all that is probably available elsewhere. I drive a Chevy Volt and have 45-40 electric miles available every day. That is almost always enough. I burned 1 quart of fuel last month for 744 mpg, TXU electricity is free 10pm-6am. The 2 gas burners stay parked most of the time. I prefer PHEV for now so that my range is unlimited but this BMW looks great and I will consider it for my next car/


I notice there is nothing about recycling the batteries after they fully wear out just reusing the ones that are worn beyond usefulness in a car.

Even with the subsidy that reduces the price to US$51,000 when you add financing costs and the effects of inflation it won't save enough on 'fuel' to offset the high price. Although the general revenue taxes on fuel in Europe change how this looks the governments are not going to give up the revenue stream and the taxes will just be applied elsewhere.

If the time energy and money had been put into producing a constant power high-output high-efficiency emission controlled sub-50cc engine with a less costly energy recovery system such as flywheel or pneumatic you would have a car that's price matches what its target costumers can pay without subsidies while reducing energy consumption more overall.


Slowburn: Financing should not be a problem for the fiscally wise, e.g., if you can't pay cash, you can't afford it.

I can afford the price but wouldn't buy it. I don't buy luxury cars either, and for the same reason: The value is not there, i.e., I won't pay 80% more for 10% more car. And the i3 is not even sexy like the i8. (For sexy I will pay a little more.)

BMW is out front with this unique commitment to lightweight materials. Next they need to focus on aerodynamics. The trifecta would be using the latest techs such as "motor in wheel", drive by wire, and low resistance tires. I would break down and pay more for all that.

Don Duncan

Here goes 'Slowburn' again - always carping. Sub-50cc engine? Try hooking your whipper-snipper motor to a generating set and see what output you get! Most motor-in-wheel ideas so far have failed from excess unsprung weight. Drive by wire is meaningless, virtually all today's modern drivetrain/control circuits is drive by wire. Tyres?, any manufacturer will not deliberately use poor mileage tyres in today's climate and economy.

The Skud

re; The Skud

Do you really believe that getting 25hp out of a 40cc is impossible? The engine will be heavy for its rated power because it runs at the rated power constantly. It would also be diesel in operation if not fuel because of the high boost and compression. Purpose built for pneumatic drive it would also be crankless.

The car normally operates on stored power and is not intended for long distant highway travel; it would however be better at it than these battery powered things.


SlowKlue only focuses on what can be sold right now and not on what can be built and improved upon. First, there are a bunch of mostly lithium batteries that are going to be vastly better and should start arriving in not-likely-more-than 3 years. For now, BMW & others have to price products on what they build TODAY and they have to recover their sizeable development costs. Hence, any new technology starts out with significant prices. There was a time when VCRs & PCs required lots of cash. Fairly quickly VCRs, PCs, Digital Cameras, etc, became cheap enough for even Walmart to sell them. The same will happen with lithium composition batteries. Motor-in-wheel designs will always be limited by the dynamic effects of unsprung weight. This tail-wagging-dog effect only gets worse as the rest of the vehicle lightens up from composite materials. It is better to both lighten & stiffen a vehicle with composite materials and quit whining about where the motor is. Also there are a several alternative ICE engine designs that are moving towards mass market deployability and all have far better power-to-weight numbers than today's engines. Finally, all European companies have to recycle and so will BMW as these batteries hit end of life. It is mostly American companies that work harder at dumping stuff in someone elses yard, (Africa, South America, & China), than at reusing, refitting, recycling, etc. Overall it is important to try to see the broad arc of development & application for any given technology rather narrowly focusing on just what is in a showroom now.


re; StWils

Economy of scale does not affect the price of products that the expense is the material and energy used in the production. The price of lithium is going to come down slightly with new discoveries but given that it is places like Bolivia and Afghanistan do not set your hopes up too high. But even if the price of the batteries drops by half they will still be an expensive energy storage medium that greatly limits the range of the vehicle they power without the capability of doubling the fuel load with a few cans in the cargo rack. Also several years ago an early heavy snowfall took down power lines all over the city it was 2 weeks before power was restored to my house I still had to drive to work.


Repairability! Can you weld this stuff? Can you pound out dents? "cradle to grave"?? Cars don't die, their owners just decide to stop maintaining them. My daily commuter vehicle is a 41 year old MG midget that gets an honest 36 mpg combined city/freeway. As long as I own it, it will never "die". The new design philosophy is to build cars that last a fairly long time with little maintenance and then throw them away. No consideration is given to ease of repair. In the case of BMW, the company has configured the onboard computers so that a non- factory mechanic cannot access the codes required to diagnose and repair the vehicle. I would NEVER buy a BMW.

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