Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On carbon fiber

Market overview
Carbon fiber is one of the industrial products that allow Japan to maintain technology edge. The three producers, Toray Industries, Toho Tenax (formerly Toho Rayon and currently a Teijin’s subsidiary), and Mitsubishi Rayon account for about 70% of the world market. Western companies used to be dominant in the past because carbon fibers were in great demand for war supplies including jet fighters. Back then, there were as many as 15 producers worldwide, and Japanese companies were producing carbon fibers for sporting goods like golf clubs and tennis rackets.

The market changed drastically on the occasion of the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Western companies withdrew from the carbon fiber business because of the rapid decline in military demand, and Japanese companies replaced the western companies. The three Japanese companies were in a favorable position because they all are fiber makers, whereas western companies were chemical companies without sufficient knowledge of fibers. Today, Toray has 27% share and Toho Tenax 21% share in the world market. Three Japanese companies are followed by Taiwan Plastics that produces only carbon fibers of a single grade for general purposes. Today, it is hardly possible to launch an artificial satellite without Japanese carbon fibers.

Though weighing only one fourth of iron, carbon fiber has 10 times as much strength and 7 times as much degree of elasticity as iron. The production method is very special. First, continuous fiber called precursor is produced, and the produced precursor is processed for thermal protection. The thermally-protected precursor is sintered and carbonized by inactive gases to produce carbon fibers. The basic production method is the same in every producer. Carbon fiber is closely related to environment concerns. Half of a Boeing 787 is made of carbon fiber reinforced plastic, and it has 20% higher energy efficiency than a passenger plane of the same class. Carbon fiber is growing popular in car production lately, though the application is limited only to high-end cars at present. Although CO2 is emitted in the production process of carbon fibers, but the amount to be eliminated by applying carbon fibers is much bigger.

Spreading usage
The usage of carbon fiber is spreading. As the wind generator grows bigger in size, carbon fiber is increasingly used for the center core of blades to make them stronger. As a big blade needs 1-2 tons of carbon fiber, the market is growing bigger. The market of carbon fiber for airplanes is estimated at 3,000 ton annually, while 3,000-4,000 tons of carbon fibers will supposedly be needed annually for wind generation in the future. A large amount of carbon fiber reinforced plastics will be used for Boeing’s next medium-sized airline B787, and Toray is Boeing’s leading supplier. Tenax is the leading supplier of Airbus that introduced A380 in 2007, about 30% of which is made of carbon fiber reinforce plastics ratio by weight.

Production cost, etc.
Greatly affected by the sluggish economy worldwide, Japan’s monthly production of carbon fiber decreased from 1,200 tons before the Lehman shock to 323 tons in March 2009. In addition, the production delay of Boeing 787s diminished demand and the glut created by overcapacity drove down prices. The market, however, recovered to 900 tons in October 2009 partly because of the diversified usage. Production cost is the most critical factor for spreading carbon fiber. It costs 10 times more than glass fiber and 100 times more than iron to produce carbon fiber. Various approaches are being conducted now. Under the current technology, only one ton of PAN (Polyacrylonitrile) carbon fiber is produced from two tons of precursor. To improve productivity, experiments are being conducted to change the base material from acrylic to another material.

At the same time, fabrication technology offers lots of room for improvement. Toyota’s Lexus scheduled to be introduced toward the end of 2010 uses carbon fiber for the constructional material of its driver’s seat. Toyota introduced new fabrication technology and shortened the production time of a driver’s seat to 10 minutes. However, it is necessary to shorten the production time from 10 minutes to 3 minutes if carbon fiber is used for popular cars. A breakthrough technology is required to spread carbon fiber as a general-purpose material.

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