Carbon fiber consists of crystalline filaments, merely a few microns in width. But while the filaments are thin, they can impart high strength and rigidity to plastics, and the resulting composites, generically known as carbon-fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP), are in increasing demand across a variety of industries. In aerospace and automotive, for example, fuel-efficiency favors replacing metal parts and components with lighter CFRP counterparts. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a well known case in point, where the goal was an aircraft 20% more fuel-efficient than the 767 it was replacing.
Website aviationbenefits.org sees significant advantages in the Boeing 787’s extensive adoption of composites: “Composites, which make up 50% of the aircraft’s structure, are lighter, stronger, more resistant to impact, as well as more resistant to corrosion and fatigue than aluminium alloys. They open up new design opportunities such as larger windows and lower cabin altitude. In addition, composites enable new manufacturing processes such as one-piece barrel construction.”
Victrex plc, a specialist in polyaryletherketone (PAEK) polymers, estimates that if the use of carbon-fiber composites reduces aircraft weight by 100kg (220.5 pounds), an airline with 500 short-range aircraft could save up to US$5 million per year in fuel costs.
Other markets driving demand for CFRP include wind energy, sports equipment, marine, oil and gas, electronics and pharmaceuticals.
According to a Global Forecast to 2019, from marketsandmarkets.com, the global market for CFRP composites was worth US$16.48 billion in 2013 and is expected to grow at a CAGR of 12.8% from 2014 to 2019.
In the report Carbon Fibers & Carbon Fiber Reinforced Plastics (CFRP) – A Global Market Overview, by Industry Experts, global demand for CFRP, estimated at around 67,000 metric tons (MT) in 2012, is expected to maintain a 2012-2020 CAGR of 15.3%, to reach 210,000 MT by 2020.
In terms of value, according to the Industry Experts report, demand for CFRP, estimated at US$10.25 billion in 2012, is expected to record a CAGR of 11.9% in the period 2012-2020, reaching US$25.2 billion by 2020.
In tandem with the CFRP market, global demand for carbon fiber itself, in terms of volume, was estimated at 45,000 MT in 2012 and is forecast to reach 141,000 MT by 2020, registering a 2012-2020 CAGR of 15.4%. In terms of value, global consumption of carbon fiber was estimated at US$2.03 billion in 2012, and is projected to reach around US$5 billion by 2020.
According to analysis by CompositesWorld.com, in Supply and demand: Advanced fibers (2015), the largest producer of carbon fiber is Toray Industries. Toray has a multi-year contract with the Seattle-based Boeing to supply carbon-fiber/epoxy prepregs for both the 787 Dreamliner and 777X programs. The total value of the combined supply agreement reportedly exceeds US$8.3 billion.
Toray believes that demand for carbon fiber is now growing at the rate of 15% per year and the Tokyo-based company has expanded all of its production facilities in Japan, the US, France and South Korea, over the past two years. Toray’s total capacity is expected to reach 27,100 MT by mid-2015.
The CompositesWorld.com report also notes that recent market entrants in China include Dalian Xingke Carbon Fiber (Dalian City) and the Yingyou Group Corp. (Lianyungang). At least three other China-based entities, in Shandong, Zhejiang and Guangxi provinces, are reported to be developing carbon-fiber production.
Meanwhile, Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics has been expanding output, with production now at 8,750 MT.
A380 image courtesy of Airbus. The A380 is the first commercial airliner to have a central wing box made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic.