Carbon Fiber: No More A Space Age Material
Carbon fiber, alternatively known as graphite fiber, is an extremely, strong, stiff, and light polymer. Thus, making it an ideal material for making superior building materials. It is comparatively a recent addition to structural materials but has the end users impressed with its unique properties. The strongest of carbon fibers is 10x stronger and 5x lighter than steel. As compared to aluminium, it is 8x stronger and 1.5x lighter.
In recent years, the popularity of carbon fibers has increased due to their high performance in aircrafts, supercars, yachts, and sporting and leisure goods. Companies have also started developing 3D printing filament made of carbon fiber for making unique composites based on applications. In 2020, MakerBot launched METHOD, which prints carbon fiber that is reinforced with nylon for industrial applications.
Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) to Stay as the Most Common Precursor
In 2018, the demand for carbon fiber was estimated at around 100,000 metric tons. Most of the companies operating in the fiber market are secretive about their production process. Each manufacturers’ fiber varies from its rivals depending on fiber processing and signature characteristics to the product. The most common precursor to produce carbon fiber is polyacrylonitrile (PAN). Around 90% of the total carbon fiber is produced with PAN as the raw material. PAN uses acrylonitrile as a raw material, a derivative from propylene and ammonia. PAN-based fibers are formed by two conventional process: wet spinning and dry-wet spinning processes.
The remaining of the production is made from petroleum pitch and rayon. Pitch is a viscoelastic material made up of aromatic hydrocarbons derived from coal tar, asphalt, or polyvinyl chloride. Rayon, a regenerated cellulose fiber, is another raw material used for producing high-strength carbon fibers. The carbon fiber yield from pitch or rayon is low as compared to PAN precursor. Low conversion rates combined with the cost of the stretch-graphitization results in high cost of product, thus making PAN a popular choice of precursor for manufacturing.
Rising Demand for High-strength and Light-weight Materials from Aerospace and Automotive Sectors
Currently, wind turbine blades are the largest market for carbon fiber. Carbon fibers are used in spar or structural element of blades longer than 45m, both onshore and offshore structures. Lower density and stiffness of carbon fiber allows blade manufacturers to build slender, lighter, and stiffer blade profile. Rise in offshore wind power installations coupled growing demand for longer blade and larger wind turbines is expected to drive the demand for carbon fiber in the wind energy sector. Automotive is another key application of carbon fiber along with wind turbine, together accounting for more than half of the demand for carbon fiber in 2018.
Recently, carbon fiber-based composites have been considered as a possible alternative to conventional metals and plastics by the automotive industry. They have better stiffness, strength, and fatigue properties as compared to its metal counterparts, making them suitable for load carrying applications such as frame structure.
Growing regulatory pressure has forced automakers to build lightweight and fuel-efficient cars, thus propelling demand for carbon fibers in the automotive industry. Carbon fiber’s superior strength to weight ratio has made them a popular choice in manufacturing large aircrafts for military and commercial purposes.
Europe and North America to Remain Largest Volume Market
Europe and North America are the largest markets for carbon fiber and together accounted for more than 3/5th of the market in 2018. Environmental and regulatory pressure from the authorities to reduce body weight, improve fuel efficiency, and reduce carbon emissions have been the key driving factors for the use of carbon fibers in the aerospace and automotive industries of these regions.
China is expected to be fastest-growing market for carbon fiber and is projected to exhibit double-digit growth over the coming years. A world leader in power generation, China has set a road map and goals for wind power capacity of 400GW by 2030. In the past few years, China has been installing offshore wind systems to access better wind resources. Various initiatives have been taken by the Chinese Government to prioritize the production of carbon fiber and based composites for industrial machinery, wind turbine blades, and the automotive industry.
The current carbon fiber manufacturing facilities are predominantly located in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China. Japan is one of the largest exporters of carbon fiber with U.S., U.K., Germany, China, and South Korea the major destinations.
Focus on Vertically Integrated Operations to Gain Competitive Edge
Currently, the market for carbon fiber is highly consolidated. Companies such as Toray, SGL Carbon, Hexcel, Mitsubishi Chemical, and Teijin together accounted for more than 3/4th of the total carbon fiber production in 2018. Many multinational companies in the market are targeting vertically integrated business model from precursors to composites. This strategy is expected to maximize the technology efficiency and offer product competitiveness in the market.
In 2019, Hyosung Advanced Materials announced growth plans for its carbon fiber business. The company plans to invest US$825 Mn by 2028 to install 10 lines and expand annual carbon fiber capacity to 24,000 tons. The investment will strengthen the position of Hyosung in the carbon fiber market and is expected to up its market position into top 3 producers by 2028.