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Carbon fibre manufacturers are continuing to invest in connection with strong demand and the rise in carbon fibre sale prices. The shortage felt in 2005 is still a reality for some grades (3K, 6K) but, globally speaking, the supply and the demand are getting back to normal.
(Published on June 2008 – JEC Magazine #41)
This article focuses on the carbon fibre production capacities available for the next two years (2008-2010), taking into account that some investments have been officially announced while others remain to be finalised. This year, carbon fibre suppliers were reluctant to give projections beyond 2010 as investment strategies are critical for them.
Based on the Soficar article published in the JEC Composites Magazine no.37 in December 2007, we were able to estimate the market demand for 2008, 2010 and 2012 assuming that carbon producers would be able to supply enough fibre to avoid penalising the business. Globally, the demand will be multiplied by 1.35 between 2008 (38,900 tonnes) and 2012 (52,300 tonnes), with an average growth of 16% per year (figure 1).
In 2012, Europe will account for 32% of global consumption, North America for 32%, Asia for 22%, and Japan for 14%. These figures could change rapidly with the growing relocation of composite production.
The change in worldwide consumption is clear: the sports & leisure sector used to boost the development of carbon fibres but is now losing its relative importance, with 16% expected for 2012 and growth remaining moderate at around 5% per year. Applications in aeronautics are going up and should reach 22% by 2012, with growth at around 20% per year linked to strong Airbus and Boeing programmes. Industrial applications have obviously developed the most in the past five years, and are likely to grow even more in the years to come. In 2012, this segment should be close to the 63% mark, with an annual growth of 15-18%. Such strong growth is probably due to the large number of highly promising projects in sectors like wind energy, rollers, pressure vessels, surface transportation, civil engineering, marine, and oil exploitation to name just the main ones. Chopped fibres used in compounds (mostly thermoplastics) account for a significant level of consumption (5,000-7,000 tonnes).
All figures expressed in tonnes correspond to the dry fibre (excluding resin). Preox fibres are excluded from this study.
Two terms are used to express carbon fibre production capacities. One is “nameplate capacity”, which corresponds to the unit maximum theoretical capacity; the other is “output” or “mix load” capacity, which corresponds to the real capacity to produce a full range of yarns (1K, 3K, 6K, 12K, etc.) with a 100% activity rate. The latter figure is the most important when it comes to calculating supply and demand (table 1).
Counting a 19,000-tonne increase in capacity between 2008 and 2010, the nameplate capacity for 2010 will amount to 69,500 tonnes. Increases of 4,000 tonnes in 2010 have already been announced. Toray has an ambitious investment programme. With a 33% share, Toray is positioned as a leader and should even reinforce its position. Toho Tenax holds a 20% share, with production facilities in Japan, Europe and the USA. The three Japanese groups account for 67% of the global small tow production, whereas the two American groups account for 16%, and the Taiwanese group for 12%. All of these groups produce their own PAN precursor, which guarantees them quality, continuity, and production-cost control. Two new carbon suppliers attended the JEC Show 2008: Dalian Xingke Carbon Fiber Co, Ltd (China) and AKSA (Turkey).
3K and 6K versus 12K
3K and 6K yarns are commonly used. They are also aerospace-grade, and Airbus and Boeing are utilising them increasingly more often (build rate effect). For technical reasons however, it has not been possible to replace them completely with 12K yarns. This had led carbon producers to reorganise their production through specialisation of production lines and to reinvest for this type of yarn.
Large tow (above 24K)
The Toho Tenax Group has converted its 80K heavy-tow production (previously Fortafil USA) into 24K small-tow production. Zoltek continues to pursue an aggressive strategy, notably in the area of wind turbine blades and industrial applications.
Lastly, SGL Carbon has announced an ambitious investment programme. A significant part of large-tow carbon fibre production is devoted to chopped-fibre applications.
In addition to carbon fibre, a growing number of manufacturers are also offering conventional fabrics, multiaxial fabrics (N.C.F), prepregs (fabrics and/or tapes), and composite parts in some cases.
Pitch-based carbon fibre
Pitch-based carbon fibre is used in specific applications such as civil engineering, satellites, and rollers among others. Investments for Pitch-based carbon fibres are limited comparatively to PAN-based carbon fibres.
Carbon continues to strengthen its position in terms of weight and energy savings (economy-wise). In many applications, there is no going back to aluminium or aluminium alloys. Many investments have been launched, so the shortage should be overcome within the coming months. New carbon fibre suppliers are expected to appear in the short term.
The JEC Composites Magazine editing staff would like to thank carbon fibre suppliers for answering our questions, which helped us draft a statement as of May 2008.