Future of Carbon Fiber: In Wind Energy, Aerospace, & Automotive Industry

With its unique characteristics, carbon fiber (CF) has great development prospects in several fields.

This post is to identify key opportunities in the carbon fiber supply chain where resources and investments can help advance the clean energy economy.

We should focus on three application areas, that top the list of industries using carbon fiber reinforced polymers:

  • Wind energy,
  • Aerospace, and
  • Automotive industry.

For each of the three application areas, the post will address the supply and demand trends within that sector and the costs of carbon fiber and components.

1. Carbon fiber in wind energy

Wind energy is the second largest demand sector for carbon fiber in terms of tonnage, and significant growth is expected because of the fiber required by wind blades.

1.1 Demand and supply trends for wind energy

High-strength, standard-tensile-modulus, large-tow carbon fiber in the range of 24K-50K is generally used for wind energy applications.

A forecast for the present and future regional distribution of CF demand by the wind industry is given in Industry Experts and summarized in the figure below.

In this forecast, Europe has the largest share of total worldwide demand both today and in 2020 a result of European Union targets for 20% of energy to be provided by renewable sources.

By 2020, Europe’s CF demand is projected to increase by 3.5 times and account for about 70% of total demand. The U.S. and Asian CF demand in 2020 will be similar with each contributing about 15% of total demand.

Forecast of carbon fiber demand for the wind energy industry, by region. Image Source: www.gwec.net

1.2 Price and value of CF applied in wind energy

Large-tow carbon fiber used for wind turbine blades sells in the $15.40 – $24.20 per kilogram range.

With the exception of Japan where carbon fiber price is lowest at ~$23/kg, no regional price variation was observed.

It is projected that with economies of scale and manufacturing technology improvements achieved by 2020 will result in a $23/kg carbon fiber price, roughly consistent across all regions.

Along with technical challenges related to manufacturing comparatively larger-tow with larger filament diameter carbon fibers for better compression strength, cost-effectiveness is a major barrier toward market growth in wind energy.

1.3 Supply chain of CF in wind energy

When expected demand for large-tow carbon fiber from the wind energy and automotive sectors are combined, the global demand total is projected to be 71,450 tonnes, while projected available production capacity is 51,400 tonnes.

Meeting this demand will be a supply chain distributed worldwide. However, it is more likely that with the increase in blade size, logistical concerns likely to drive new investment in portside facilities for offshore wind energy systems.

2. Carbon fibers in aerospace

Aerospace projects have been the primary drives of the carbon fiber (CF) and carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) industry for most of their history.

2.1 Demand and supply trends in aerospace

The most obvious product of the aerospace industry, aircraft, accounted for $152 billion of that total through the manufacture and sale of roughly 4,390 planes and rotorcraft.

This manufacturing effort (along with the maintenance, repair and overhaul of older craft) required some 544,000 tonnes of raw materials.

Industry Experts projection for aerospace demand for CF in 2020 is 23,170 tonnes. Double-digit growth rates projected by the three major sources indicate future significant demand for CF by the aerospace industry. The latest aerospace CF demand projection is for demand of 22,100 tonnes by 2020.

2.2 Price and value of CF applied in aerospace

The strict performance requirements of CF in aerospace application lead to certification barrier and tighter manufacturing tolerances than those associated with other CF applications.

This in turn leads to higher prices for aerospace CFRP parts. One result of these price differences is that market shares of CF demand look very different when measured by monetary value rather than by tonnes.

That said, even though the tonnage CF demand from the aerospace industry is much smaller than that of the wind energy industry, the fibers going to aerospace industry are much more worthy.

3. Carbon fibers in automotive industry

The automotive industry has been interested in CFRP for several decades because the material has greater weight savings potential and higher stiffness than conventional material such as steel and aluminum.

3.1 Price and value of CF applied in automotive industry

About 1,500 unique vehicle models are in production today, and a little over 100 of them use some amount of CFRP as standard equipment.

However, the uptake of CFRP in the automotive industry has been quite limited despite these superior properties. High CF costs, long CFRP by the automotive industry has largely remained confined to ultra-expensive, low-production-volume models such as the Lamborghnini Murcielago.

Because of this, the automotive industry seeks the least expensive types of CF that are able to meet CFRP performance requirements. The lowest-cost commercially available fibers meeting these requirements are large tow (defined as more than 24,000 filaments per tow) textile-grade carbon fibers.

3.2 Price and value of CF applied in automotive industry

As mentioned previously, the automotive is very sensitive to the price of CF, making large-tow, textile-grade CF the most cost-effective choice.

With today’s CF prices, widespread adoption of CF by the automotive industry cannot be expected. However, a significant reduction in price could stimulate huge demand from the automotive industry.

That is all about the price trend of carbon fiber applied in wind energy, aerospace and automotive industry fields. We hope it would be helpful! Feel free to leave your comments below if you have any questions.

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