To gain acceptance in any application, CFRP must demonstrate both technical and economic benefits. The main technical benefit of using carbon fiber for most applications is the material’s high strength-to-weight performance, which leads to lower weight, more efficient structures. For example, incorporating carbon fiber in wind turbine blades leads to lighter, more efficient aerodynamic shapes and blade designs. In automobiles, the weight of certain components and assemblies can be reduced by 50 to 75% when made of CFRP, thereby improving fuel consumption and CO2 performance or significantly extending the driving range of battery-powered electric vehicles. The future market segment scenario could look very different than today’s if development and adoption continue at the current pace. (See Figure 2.)
Another factor affecting the market is industry capacity for carbon fiber production, which is tightening. Nameplate capacity (the rated capacity) of carbon fiber producers added together may be 140,000 metric tons or more. However, considering the mix and variety of products produced and knock-down effects inherent in the process, effective industry net capacity is likely only around 110,000 metric tons. As a result, several new plants and capacity expansions have been announced from a variety of producers around the world, including North America (Mexico and the U.S.), Europe (Hungary and Turkey) and Asia (China).
For carbon fiber to gain a greater share of the overall composites market, volume is key. High-volume applications and broader adoption of CFRP require lower costs – both the cost of carbon fiber material and the manufacturing cost of making CFRP parts. Aircraft are built one per day, automobiles one per minute and wind turbine blades, sporting goods and other applications fall in between on the production volume scale. The issue of volume versus cost is a “chicken or egg” situation: Which comes first? However, we are confident that if industry professionals work together, then high-volume applications will materialize and result in the necessary lower costs and increased acceptance.
There are other issues, too. For instance, the challenge of unlocking mass adoption of CFRP in every day automobiles produced in the millions goes beyond pure technical and economic considerations. Sustainability and recycling also need to be addressed. But these issues are being tackled up and down the value chain.
In summary, the market for carbon fiber materials and CFRP end products is growing steadily and robustly. Demand has caught up to available capacity, and additional capacity has been announced and will come on stream in time. But, as always, the secret to continuing to unlock the potential demand for carbon fiber in all end-use applications remains using the right materials in the right ways. The future is promising for carbon fiber, and developments in the next couple of years will be interesting.
The Automotive Market
By Marc Benevento, President