Carbon fiber is enjoying something of a birthday this year. With the release of the 2011 McLaren MP4-12C supercar, McLaren celebrates thirty years since they developed the first carbon fiber monocoque chassis, used in their 1981 Formula 1 racing car.

They were then the first to develop a carbon monocoque in a road car too, with 1992's McLaren F1 road car, still regarded by many as the greatest supercar ever. Now, with the MP4-12C, they're bringing carbon monocoque technology to a new price point.

Of course, we've seen carbon fiber used in other ways since its first use in racing. The cost back then was prohibitive, as was the time to develop cabon fiber components. Now, McLaren can produce a whole monocoque in four hours, and you can buy everything from cars, though watches and laptops down to keyrings made from the stuff, all of it gleefully overpriced to reflect in the glory of its use in sports.

It might not be overpriced for long though. Japanese textile maker Teijin has developed what it claims is the world's first mass production technology for carbon fiber reinforced plastics for use in automobiles.

Even McLaren's four hour monocoque is an eternity compared to the speed of mass produced vehicles, and Keijin's new tech could reduce the time for forming carbon moulds by up to 80 percent. It's now quick enough to produce the moulding for a car's cabin frame in less than a minute.

The implications are huge: Materials like carbon fiber reinforced plastics are desirable for their weight - about half that of sheet steel and 30 percent less than aluminum. This low weight makes it a priority for use in future cars, which will be expected to weigh less to the benefit of economy and performance, a particular concern with the new generation of electric cars weighed down by heavy battery packs.

The difficulty in producing it before now has ruled out its widespread use for time and cost reasons. Bringing down the production time will bring down the expense, and it could see wider usage.

As with so many other technologies, the benefits from years of development eventually filter down to consumers at every level. It may not be too long until even the cheapest of cars have McLaren-style carbon monocoques...

[Wall Street Journal]