High-pressure gas storage vessels represent one of the biggest and fastest-growing markets for advanced composites. In 2013, according to Chris Red, principal at Composites Forecasts and Consulting (Mesa, AZ, US), construction of pressure vessels of all types (metal, composite and metal/composite hybrids) represented more than US$2 billion in global sales. That same year, pressure vessel manufacturers accounted for 6-7% of the estimated 65,000 MT of global demand for carbon fibers. Although they are used in self-contained breathing apparatuses and provide oxygen and gas storage on aerospace vehicles, the primary end-markets for composite-reinforced pressure vessels are bulk transportation of compressed natural gas (CNG) products, and fuel storage in passenger cars, buses and trucks with powertrains dependent on CNG and hydrogen alternatives to gasoline and diesel.
Demand for alternative fuels is growing, in large part, because the extraction of natural gas from shale reserves has contributed to lower prices in North America and parts of Europe. In the North American market, for example, the cost of natural-gas fuels currently runs about 40% less than diesel, per diesel gallon equivalent. In addition, increasingly stringent emissions regulations, including the European Union’s Euro 6 Standard, which became effective early in 2014, are making diesel-powered buses and commercial vehicles more expensive for operators. Impending regulations are improving the marketability not only of CNG but also of hydrogen — after a period of relative dormancy — for fuel-cell powered vehicles.
Five years ago, the world’s natural gas-powered vehicles (NGVs) — cars, trucks, buses, and fork-lift vehicles — numbered about 10 million. In 2013, the NGV population exceeded 20 million and, by 2023, could be more than 65 million. Based on strong demand in Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Iran, Italy and Pakistan, NGV deliveries were expected to reach nearly 5.8 million in 2014 and nearly 11 million per year by 2023. The vast majority (94 percent) of these NGVs are expected to be equipped with high-pressure (200+ bar) fuel storage systems.
Although past promises about the marketability of pressure vessels for hydrogen (H2) storage in automobile fuel-cell powered drivetrains systems were received with well-deserved skepticism, 13 automotive OEMs now have released FCV demonstrators and test fleets. The number of new-build FCVs is expected to double compared to 2013, totaling about 4,000 in 2014. Despite this relatively small number, Composites Forecasts’ Red says it is plausible that annual production could climb to approximately 200,000 vehicles per year by 2023. This would create sizeable demand for high-pressure hydrogen storage tanks. Further, demand for much larger vessels, for use in over-the-road and water transport of gases, is growing.
By 2016, Red predicts that annual production will approach 12.5 million pressure vessels and could grow to more than 20 million units, yearly, within a decade. Delivery of more than 150 million pressure vessels is forecast between 2014 and 2023. Over that time, vessel fabricators will need to procure approximately 752,400 MT of raw materials to support composite vessel production volumes — worth more than US$12 billion, including about $5.8 billion in carbon fibers (primarily 12K, 24K, and large-tow formats). To keep up with demand, carbon fiber manufacturers will likely need to produce an additional 30,000 MT of fiber.