Carbon Fiber has been touted for decades for its potential to combine light weight and high strength in everything from sporting goods to cars – and in transportation in particular it can have a big impact on energy usage by making automobiles, boats, and airplanes lighter and more efficient. In fact, the extensive use of carbon fiber in the airframe of the Boeing 787 helps contribute to making that aircraft 20% more fuel efficient than its predecessor. However, high material costs and unique manufacturing challenges have limited the adoption of carbon fiber in mass-market applications – most notably in automotive, where cost-sensitivity is particularly high.
Lux Research's Advanced Materials team follows carbon fiber developments closely, since they believe many of the innovations now emerging will address these challenges and start to realize more of the material's potential. As part of that coverage, Lux Research recently participated in CompositesWorld’s Carbon Fiber 2014 conference. This annual event brings together hundreds of attendees throughout the value chain seeking to enhance carbon fiber composite use in current markets or innovate into new applications.
Our presentation, along with those from carbon fiber developers like Hexcel and SGL, focused on cost-reducing and performance-enhancing innovations for opening up new opportunities for carbon fiber. Hexcel’s presentation was especially enlightening as it focused on the economic risk carbon fiber suppliers face in investing in new capacity, balancing factors like capital and variable costs, asset utilization, scale, and application-dependent lead times. Such emphasis certainly reflects the rising sentiment in the space that large-volume markets, particularly mainstream automotive where carbon-fiber reinforced plastics (CFRPs) have been historically priced out, are critical for driving future demand. In fact, our current forecast for automotive growth through 2020 ($6 billion auto CFRP market) will be faster than we predicted in 2012 due to better than expected sales in early models like the BMW i series, as well as an increasingly expanding and deepening partnership web between auto OEMs or Tier 1s and carbon fiber suppliers. That being said, even this value barely scratches the surface of the potential opportunity in this vast segment.
While current partnerships, consortia, and investments in fiber production capacity and technology are critical for bringing carbon fiber to automotive scale, successful wide adoption will also require several challenges to be overcome, including:
- Novel fiber precursors that can serve as more affordable alternatives to the incumbent polyacrylonitrile (PAN)
- Improvements in resin viscosity and curing times, and the rate at which resin can coat fiber
- New sizings and surface treatments compatible with cheaper thermoset resins and thermoplastics
- Improved composite processing throughput and decreased cycle time
- Scalable and economic recycling technologies.
To take just one example of the focus on cost reduction, Connie Jackson, Director of the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), directly addressed cost reduction via alternative precursors, providing an update on the Lab’s efforts on the manufacture of low-cost carbon fiber from unmodified textile acrylic fiber. However, while ORNL has already successfully produced fibers from this precursor that surpass the minimum tensile strength and modulus values for automotive applications, textile-grade PAN will not be sufficient to achieve the target cost of $11/kg for the carbon fiber product that auto OEMs seek for mass-market vehicle use. Reaching that cost mark will require even cheaper precursors such as polyolefins or lignin, which to date have not achieved minimal mechanical performance requirements.
One critical theme, however, that many of the other companies active in the carbon fiber space tend to miss, is the importance of having a view of other outside drivers that will shape the timeline and extent of automotive CFRP adoption. These include alternative methods of reducing fuel consumption such as metal lightweighting or electrification, stringency of efficiency and safety regulations, the need for new technology (and intellectual property) to percolate through the industry, and the effects of long term megatrends like urbanization and automation in upending vehicle design and use patterns.
While a laser-like focus on reducing the cost of CFRP is great for a research center like ORNL, clients looking to capitalize on a growing CFRP market must adopt a broader view and recognize that commercial penetration depends on overcoming challenges throughout the value chain. Moreover, players in this space need to beware that these efforts are not happening in a vacuum, as competing fuel reduction technologies and other larger megatrends are also poised to shake up the future of the automotive industry.
Interested in discussing Lux Research's work on carbon fiber, as well as other emerging lightweighting and fuel efficiency options? Contact Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.