Sponsored By

Carbon fiber is found in industrial applications such as pressure vessels, wind turbines, automobiles, aircraft and sporting goods.

Clare Goldsberry

December 22, 2016

4 Min Read
Aircraft, automobile manufacturers driving demand for high-strength, lightweight carbon fiber

Led by industrial applications, such as the manufacture of aircraft, automobiles, pressure vessels, wind turbines and sporting goods, the global market for carbon fibers is growing dramatically—more than 8% per year through 2020, according to new research from business intelligence company IHS Markit (London).

IHS Markit expects global consumption of carbon fiber to grow from over 60 thousand metric tons (TMT) in 2015 to approximately 90 TMT by 2020. Carbon fibers are lightweight, high-strength materials that serve as reinforcing agents in high-performance composites made from specialty epoxy resins and engineering thermoplastics.

Toray, the world’s largest carbon fiber producer, signed a long-term agreement with Boeing to supply carbon fiber pre-pregs for the new Boeing 777X aircraft.

“Major advances in technology and processing have dramatically expanded demand for high-performance carbon fibers,” said Michael Malveda, Director at IHS Markit and lead analyst of the report, Carbon Fibers: Chemical Economics Handbook. “The introduction of higher-volume and lower-cost fibers, coupled with gains in productivity, have reduced the manufacturing cost of carbon fibers. Cost is a major factor affecting demand, and as costs come down, we are seeing demand growing significantly.”

Malveda said aircraft and automotive manufacturers, who face environmental and regulatory pressures to reduce weight, improve energy efficiency and reduce carbon emissions, are helping drive demand for carbon fibers. Automotive and industrial/wind applications currently consume more than 60% of global carbon fiber demand, according to the study, and demand in this sector will grow at an average annual rate of nearly 9% through 2020. World demand in aircraft and aerospace applications surpassed sporting goods/recreation to become the second-largest market for carbon fibers in 2011 to 2012, Malveda said.

“Carbon fibers are increasingly being used in commercial and military aircraft manufacturing,” he said. “They are used in the construction of the main body, wings, engines, etc., and can result in less aircraft weight and lower fuel consumption." In addition, carbon fiber enables higher aircraft speeds and longer distance ranges.

IHS Markit expects growth in carbon fiber consumption for the aircraft market to reach 9% per year through the 2020 study period, or more than 20 TMT. It was less than half of that in 2012, Malveda said. Driving that demand are expected increases in airline passenger traffic, as well as the need to replace aging fleets.

Despite strong growth of carbon-fiber usage, limitations do exist, according to the IHS Markit study. For example, its use in mass-produced automobiles will need to overcome high production costs and processing technologies that can present certain challenges. The quality and consistency of carbon-fiber supply also is very important.

“Automotive manufacturers are working with carbon-fiber producers to help address production costs and quality standards, and lower costs will help manufacturers expand use of these materials to more of their models, beyond just the sports and specialty vehicle markets,” Malveda said.

Sporting goods and recreational manufacturing will consume more than 17% of carbon-fiber demand by 2020. Asia accounted for 76% of world consumption of carbon fibers in sporting goods/recreation manufacturing in 2015, and the region will drive 80% of consumption for that use by 2020, according to the report.

There is a trend to fully integrate carbon-fiber production from precursor raw materials to finished goods, IHS Markit said. For example, in Western Europe, producers have been investing into back integration such as polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor facilities, or expanding downstream with composite manufacturing plants.

Likewise, Toray, the world’s largest carbon fiber producer, has vertical production channels from precursors to carbon fibers to carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics (CFRP) on a global scale. In late 2015, the company signed a long-term agreement with Boeing to supply carbon fiber pre-pregs for the new Boeing 777X aircraft.

Malveda said several large auto manufacturers and carbon-fiber producers formed partnerships in recent years that may lead to more mainstream use of the material in the future. For example, in 2015, Ford and DowAksa formed a joint-development agreement to further research high-volume production of automotive-grade carbon fiber. In 2009, SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers was formed as a joint venture between BMW and the SGL Group. It is the exclusive supplier of carbon-fiber materials to the BMW Group for use in BMW’s i-series of electric/hybrid vehicles. In recent years, SGL Automotive has expanded its carbon-fiber production capacity to meet increasing automotive demand.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

Sign up for the PlasticsToday NewsFeed newsletter.

You May Also Like