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Carbon-fibre manufacturers – who, for economic reasons, have been investing only a little or not at all during the past three years – are resuming their investment strategies in connection with the rise in carbon-fibre sale prices. These days, demand is ever on the rise, especially in aerospace and industrial applications. The supply shortage that showed up in 2005 is likely to last another two or three years, however, until new investments are able to bridge the gap between supply and demand.
(Published on March 2006 – JEC Magazine #23)
In this article, we will take stock of production capacities over the next three years (2006-2008), taking into account that some investments have been officially announced and others being prepared have not. We have also estimated market demand for 2006 with a projection up through 2010 based on the assumption that carbon producers will be able to supply enough fibre to avoid penalising the business.
The JEC Composites Magazine editing staff would like to thank the carbon-fibre suppliers for answering all of our questions. It helped us establish a summary as of February 2006.
All numbers expressed in tons correspond to the dry fibre (excluding resin).
The distribution of the demand for carbon fibres by geographical zone (North America, Europe, Japan, Asia) shows that: 1) globally, demand will be multiplied by 1.60 between 2006 and 2010, with a growth of 10-12% per year; 2) the strongest growth is to be expected in North America and in Europe with a 14-15% annual increase between 2006 and 2010, with only 6-9% for Japan and Asia; and 3) in 2010, Europe will account for 35% of global consumption; North America, for 31%; Asia, for 19%; and Japan, for 15%.
The evolution in worldwide consumption is clear: sport & leisure, which boosted the development of carbon fibres, is losing its relative importance with 15%, and growth remains moderate at around 5% per year. Applications in aeronautics are going up by 15%, with strong Airbus and Boeing programmes. Industrial applications are obviously the segment that has developed most in the past five years and which is likely to grow most in the years to come; in 2010, this segment should pass the 60% mark, with annual growth at 13-15%. Such strong growth can be explained by the fact that there are a large number of highly promising projects like wind energy, rollers, pressure vessels, surface transportation, civil engineering, marine, and oil exploitation, to name but the main ones. Chopped fibres used in compounds (mostly thermoplastics) account for a significant consumption (4,000-5,000 tons).
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. This latter figure is the most important one for bringing together the figures for supply and demand.
Counting a 4,300-ton increase in capacity (including 1,800 tons for Toray USA, 1,500 tons for Toho Tenax Germany and 1,000 tons for Mitsuibishi USA/Europe), nameplate capacity for 2006 will amount to 31,500 tons. Increases of 6,700 tons in 2007 and 4,100 tons in 2008 have already been announced, although the Toho Tenax group, Mitsuibishi and Cytec are remaining “silent” for the moment. Toray has an ambitious investment programme.
Zoltek Group Europe USA
6 000 2500
With a 40% share, it is positioned as a leader and should even reinforce its position.
The three Japanese groups account for roughly 80% of global small tow production. The two American groups account for 14%, and the Taiwanese group, for 6%. All of these groups produce their own PAN precursor, which affords them a guarantee of quality, continuity, and production-cost control.
The case of 3K and 6K
These two yarns are in widespread use. They are also aerospace grade, and Airbus and Boeing are utilising them more and more. For technical reasons, it has not been possible to replace these with 12K yarns, leading qualified carbon producers to reorganise their production through specialisation of production lines, or even to reinvest for this type of yarn. The industrial applications based on lightweight 3K (193g/m2) fabrics for cosmetic reasons are losing out – requiring design changes (such as the recent use of “Blackweave” fabric from Hexcel, for example) or even abandoning the use of carbon to go back to glass.
A new element is the presence of the Toho Tenax group following its acquisition of Fortafil, whose heavy tow production has been reduced to 1,300 tons. Zoltek continues to pursue an aggressive strategy – notably in the area of wind turbine blades – with a 2,000-ton investment in 2006 and 2,000 more tons for 2007. So far, SGL and Carbon FiberTech (C.F.T.) have made no announcements. PAN-precursor supplier Acordis has found new financial partners, thereby improving the supply situation.
An agreement has also been signed between Mitsuibishi and SGL for the supply of PAN precursor. An important part of Large Tow Carbon fibres is dedicated to Chopped Fibres applications.
Carbon continues to carve out its place with respect to aluminium and aluminium alloys. In many applications, there is no going back to a metal. Carbon producers appear to be ready to resume their investment programmes, so the shortage should be over within the next two years.