JEC Asia show: High-end carbon fiber market gets lower cost option

Global demand for carbon fiber is set to grow by 17% per annum through to 2020 according to Taiwan's UHT Unitech (Taoyuan), reaching 118,600 tonnes. The company, which processes general-purpose PAN-based carbon fiber (200-250 GPa tensile modulus) using a proprietary process to improve its mechanical properties, forecasts the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP) to grow at 16% annually over the same time frame, within which thermoplastic CFRP is forecast to grow at 24% per annum.

UHT Unitech's Wang: Lower cost carbon fiber to serve the high end of the market.

"Much of the growth in thermoplastic CFRP will come from the ultra-slim notebook and tablet market," says UHT Unitech's  CTO Ben Wang. "OEMs are looking for housing wall thickness of 0.55 mm versus the 1 mm possible with aluminum housings." Wang also sees Chinese companies in the sports and leisure industry sacrificing quality to get lower cost products in the market and thereby expand it," he notes. Wang was speaking at a conference held in conjunction with the JEC Asia show in Singapore.

For its part, UHT Unitech plans to apply its ultra-high temperature graphitization technology for high-end carbon fiber to bring carbon fiber to the high end of the market at a cost saving of 15-30% over competing products from the likes of Japan's Toray Industries (Tokyo) and Korea's Hyosung (Seoul). "We've tried carbon fiber from as many as 10 different suppliers and been able to upgrade the performance for all of them," says Wang. The company's UT1000 product has a tensile strength of 6300 MPa (compared with 6600 MPa for Toray's T1100G), and a tensile modulus of 310 GPa  (324 GPa). The company's process entails carbonizing and graphitization of PAN-based fiber.

UHT Unitech estimates the high end of the carbon fiber market to comprise 10-20% of the overall market, while the price differential can be 2-10-fold. Only four suppliers are currently active in the high-end market (plus UHT) whereas 10-plus supplier compete in the lower end. UHT Unitech plans to triple its treatment capacity from the current 300 tonnes/year to 1000 tonnes/year over the next three years.

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