CARBON FIBER KEY | Photograph by Dominic Mowbary

Found in prototype spacecraft, carbon fiber is one of the lightest, strongest materials known to humankind. Lexus, of course, now uses it in luxury vehicles.

Ignition keys make dreams come alive. They unlock dynamic electrical systems, dramatic engines, and—if you’re lucky—unforgettable driving experiences. There’s a particular key, however, that is more special than most—the one from the Lexus LFA, and not just because it fires up a V10 engine to 9,000 rpm.

No, this particular key is special for another reason: it’s made from carbon fiber, the wonder material that’s normally found in the no-compromises aerospace industry, including the first commercial spaceplanes, SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo.

If you’ve followed the LFA over the past year, you’ve no doubt heard carbon fiber this, or carbon fiber that—somehow it’s supposed to help make the supercar go faster, which it most definitely does.

But its use in the Lexus LFA, from the key to the chassis, is bigger than just one model: carbon fiber’s use in a Lexus showcases what’s to come from a vehicle manufacturer that, once again, is seeing—heck, sculpting—the future before anyone else. This time, it’s happening in the production-auto materials department, materials that a future Lexus of yours might share with spaceplanes and prototype aircrafts.

F Sport Hood

What makes carbon fiber so special is its utterly amazing composition. In the pecking order of artificial materials, carbon fiber holds high rank, with an appropriately cosmic range of physical properties. At one end of the carbon spectrum is the diamond, one of the hardest, most dense substances in nature. In its softer state, carbon is the second most abundant element in the human body, light enough to use in lifesaving skin grafts.

Hard and soft. Dense but light. Paradoxes, yes, but there it is: somewhere in between rare gemstones and living tissue we find carbon fiber, and that’s its advantage. The material’s diamond toughness but lighter weight make it a must-have in aerospace and military applications, and its softer, organic aspects make it something you can build with—if you do it right.

Which is exactly what Lexus is doing. Lexus essentially built its own laser-controlled circular loom—one of only two in the world—that weaves a fabric from carbon fiber yarn (the yarn itself is made by spinning together pure carbon filaments, each about 10 times thinner than a human hair).

LFA Chassis

This fabric is blended with a number of high-grade plastic resins to form carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) sheets. Right now, Lexus is turning those CFRP sheets into the production LFA’s structural components (and, of course, the supercar’s unique key).

Much of the LFA’s main cabin frame is made from hand-laid pre-preg CFRP, where the carbon fiber sheets have been infused with a heat-setting resin powder before molding. Other CFRP components in the LFA, made with differing molding methods, include the floor panel, roof pillars, hood, transmission tunnel, and rear floor.

Aluminum front and rear suspension sub frames are then attached to this central “tub,” and the completed assembly is cloaked with a carbon-composite body. Not only is this entire body shell extremely rigid, it’s up to 220 pounds lighter than an equivalent aluminum body, with no loss of strength. That means the car can move faster, turn quicker, and operate more efficiently. Imagine the fuel-saving possibilities of a carbon fiber hybrid (and trust us, Lexus already has).

LFA Rear

Carbon fiber is definitely not the accountant’s way to build a chassis. It’s the engineer’s way. Creating vehicles with this remarkable polymer is a highly exacting and expensive process. The materials are costly and the molding takes time, but the payoff—and inherent value—is a stronger, lighter, top-performing innovation.

And here’s the thing: because Lexus can now do much of its carbon fiber processing in-house, the material is “primed” for future mass production in other models. To Lexus, that’s reason enough to pursue its potential. In other words, it’s not just about building an advanced supercar—it’s also about that future Lexus model you’ll one day see sitting in your driveway.

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