Industry capacity for carbon fiber production is tightening. Industry nameplate capacity (the rated capacity) may be 140,000 metric tons, but given the mix and variety of products produced and knock-down effects inherent in the process, effective industry net capacity is only around 100,000 metric tons. Therefore, we are currently seeing several new plants and capacity expansions coming on stream both from long-time producers and new players. New capacity is coming on line in all regions – in the U.S. (e.g., Alabama and South Carolina), in Europe (e.g., France) and in Asia.
China, representing 20 to 25 percent of world demand for carbon fiber, has another new player, but the country still has some catching up to do capacity and production-wise: Chinese producers have 12 to 15 percent of the world’s nameplate production capacity, but are producing less than 5 percent of the world’s carbon fiber. Chinese companies have well-resourced aims of doing more themselves. With demand for carbon fiber expected to break through 100,000 metric tons in 2019-2020, additional capacity is to be expected.
The acceptance of CFRP in any application depends on demonstrating both technical and economic benefits. In most applications, the main technical benefits of carbon fiber derive from the high strength-to-weight performance of the material, leading to lower weight structures. For example, a steel automobile body in white (a car with stamped sheet metal components welded together) might weigh 400 kilograms. However, the body could weigh just 100 kilograms if constructed from CFRP, which would lead to improved fuel consumption and carbon dioxide performance in gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles, or significantly extend the driving range of battery-powered electric vehicles.
All end-use segments of the market show significant potential for growth. Aerospace, wind turbine blades, sporting goods and molding compounds are well established end uses and will continue to grow as more and more programs are engineered to use carbon fiber. Pressure vessels (for compressed natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, hydrogen, etc.) and construction and infrastructure applications are newer end uses and have significant growth potential as the benefits and construction methods are further pioneered. Automotive applications have the highest market potential, with so many applications and vehicle platforms in development to extend beyond the current early adopters. A future market scenario could look very different from today’s should development and adoption continue at current pace. (See Figure 2.)