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Global Outlook for Carbon Fibre

  • Friday, 15th October 2010
  • Reading time: about 6 minutes

The 13th Global Outlook for Carbon Fibre conference, organised by Intertech/PIRA, took place in Valencia, Spain on September 29th and 30th, equally focused on growth and recycling

Some 100 delegates could chose between 21 papers, of which 6 were in plenary sessions and the remaining 15 split between the Virgin Track and the Recycling Track.

The opening key-note presentation was given by Dr Roland Thevenin, the Senior Expert, Composites at Airbus. Dr Thevenin first reviewed the situation of composites in the A380 and the A350WXB. He illustrated his presentation with numerous photos of the major parts in production.for the A380 and went over the status of materials for the A350, namely that the materials have been selected and the design has been frozen. He went over the tests that had been done on self stiffened elements, fuselage panels and the fuselage barrel of which the first one had been tested 2 years ago.

With regard to the future there are three key areas of focus at Airbus in composites : high material performance, leading to further weight reduction, low manufacturing cost and low maintenance cost. He warned against any complacency on the part of the composites community saying that the aluminium community had been complacent, lost out to composites but are now coming back with advanced alloys. He particularly emplhasised the need for new, more productive processes for composite part manufacture. He also went over Airbus approach to recycling saying that at the moment CFRP waste totalled only some 400 tons at Airbus on an annual basis but this was expected to rise to some 1,400 tons in 2020.

The speaker from Opel started by saying material costs and manufacturing costs are still too high for GM to consider CFRP based composites for large series cars in structural parts or body panels. He then went into detail about GMs advanced Propulsion Technology Strategy which is based in the short term on CNG, with CF possibly replacing steel for the tanks, and in the longer term on hydrogen based Fuel Cells which also use carbon fibre. He expressed the main challenges that CFRP gas tanks face in acceptance, namely that design is mostly experience based, no reliable predictive tests for burst pressures, modelling does not cover degradation and there is no appropriate material data base available.

Bill Carberry from Boeing explained Boeings philosophy and practice with regards to recycling but also by way of introduction mentioned that Boeing is not committed to any specific material fro new generations of planes. Boeings overall goal is to achieve a 75% waste reduction by 2012 from the level of 2000. Boeing itself, will not get into recycling, contrary to Airbus. Both Thevenin and Carberry agreed that the end-of-life waste issue for the new generation of planes is still some 30-40 years off and that the automotive industry will need to find a solution much earlier if it is to become a large user of carbon fibre.

Dr James Meredith of the University of Warwick presented a paper on the use of recycled carbon fibre for motorsport crash impact structures demonstrating how out of date recycled prepreg fabrics can indeed be recycled to achieve crash resistant performance.

The conference then divided into the two tracks, one on virgin material and the other on recycling carbon fibre. Its impossible in a short summary as this to do justice to all the papers that were presented in both of the tracks but each track did seem to have its own common thread. For virgin material this culminated in an open forum on the need for a global carbon fibre specifications which it was generally accepted is a necessity for the industry to progress. In recycling, several speakers commented on the chicken and egg nature of the recycling challenge, namely in these early days how do you develop, on the one hand a market for recycled material when there is not enough availability of material to be recycled and on the other how do you develop the virgin market if there is not an established market to recycle the material at end of life. Ultimately all recycling has to be local as the recycling chain cannot afford the inclusion of significant transport costs. That, however implies that you need multiple recycling points spread across the major continents and we are long way from that situation.

The closing plenary session started with a presentation by Tom Hunter who reviewed the key aspects of the recycling process along the supply chain. He was followed by the closing Keynote speaker, Zolt Rumy, founder and Chairman and CEO of Zoltek. This presentation focused on four key steps necessary for the successful commercialisation of carbon fibre. The first is the need to demonstrate the development of commercial carbon fibre manufacturing technology. Mr Rumy believes that this has been demonstrated but he warned that carbon fibre will never be cheap and that the original price goal which had been set in the 1990s of 5$/lb as being the level needed to allow carbon fibre to be widely used in automotive, translates into 10$/lb in 2010.

High volume carbon fibre production has also been demonstrated but the biggest challenge to the industry is still providing reliable and predictable pricing. Mr Rumy believes that the negative effect of significant supply and demand swings will not be moderated until the market grows at least three to four times. The final challenge is providing application development support. Mr Rumy believes the carbon fibre market will reach some 360Kt in 2017 from 35Kt today. The two largest end uses, both around the 100Kt each, will be Wind Energy and Automotive in 2017 with Aerospace a modest 40Kt. A lot of work remains to be done in automotive but Mr Rumy commented that he did not believe the SGL/BMW link up was a sustainable model in the long term. He did however see it as having energised the whole automotive industry around carbon fibre composites in a very positive way.

Altogether, it was a very useful conference covering a wide range of topics with good papers which were well delivered. The next conference is scheduled by Intertech/PIRA for next year in the United States.

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