Carbon Fiber 2007 looks forward with optimism

As high demand confronts a still limited supply, industry insiders and analysts meet to assess carbon fiber’s future and review emerging applications.
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In early December, 140 attendees gathered in the Marriott Washington Hotel (Washington, D.C.) for the Carbon Fiber 2007 Conference, hard on the heels of a series of reports from almost every major carbon fiber (CF) producer, announcing substantial increases in CF production over the next several years. Although many of the expansions aren’t scheduled to come online until 2009 or later, the CF supply/demand equation has changed dramatically over the last year.

Given the carbon fiber industry’s dearth of organized and reliable supply and demand data, attention at this conference, like those that preceded it, was most sharply focused on a few industry insiders who, through extensive research and well-educated guesses, could offer at least a sense of how CF production is evolving. Among them, industry consultant Anthony Roberts and his “Carbon Fiber & Precursor Outlook, 2008-2015,” presentation, during the preconference seminar on Dec. 5, was a standout.

Roberts explored a variety carbon fiber production issues, including polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor supply, small-tow fibers, large-tow fibers and knockdown rates, before moving quickly to the highly valued data. Roberts based his supply and demand calculations on existing and announced CF production plans, end-market production trends, and some guesswork about how CF might or might not be used in future applications. His raw numbers, if accurate, show that the current CF production expansion will handily meet demand for the next seven years (see Tables 1 and 2). His figures included in-depth exploration of specific end markets and products, covering wind power, automotive, aerospace, pressure vessels, marine and sports equipment and other applications.

Roberts, however, acknowledged that the biggest and most fluid variable is CF demand, and he solicited input from conference attendees about where his figures might be off target. Most comments — during his presentation and in the corridors during breaks — centered around the fact that CF’s scarcity during the last two years has forced manufacturers to employ other materials. “If I had access to carbon fiber, believe me, I’d use it” was a common sentiment. The message was clear: There is voluminous latent CF demand suppressed by the material’s scarcity.

Indeed, there was near universal agreement throughout the three-day event that CF demand will continue to outpace supply — recent capacity expansions notwithstanding. In fact, several speakers at the conference declared (with some tongue in cheek) that their industry niche or product type alone easily could consume the world’s CF supply for the next decade.

Among the speakers was Chris Red, editor and VP of market research at Composite Market Reports (Phoenix, Ariz.) and a contributing writer for HPC. His presentation, “Alternative Energy: Preparing for Life after ‘Peak Oil,’” assessed the global oil supply and its effect on CF pricing and evaluated the role of alternative energy sources in the CF market. In particular, he focused on composite pressure vessels for hydrogen storage and CF use in wind turbine rotor blades.

Red’s numbers for wind energy demand got the most attention. His calculations show that CF demand in wind blades will increase from just less than 5,000 metric tonnes (11 million lb) in 2007 to 30,000 metric tonnes (66.1 million lb) by 2016. Further, the blade manufacturing market is expected to grow from $2.4 billion (USD) in 2006 to $21.5 billion in 2016. “Carbon fiber, as in aerospace, has to ‘buy’ its way into wind systems,” Red said. “But I think its use will become imperative.”

Red then went one step further, contending that the world needs to add 13 terawatts (TW) of “green” power by 2056 to avoid a doubling of atmospheric CO2 — thereby potentially slowing global warming. Red said solar, geothermal and nuclear energy, while attractive, will only partially meet this goal. The balance, he said, must come from wind energy systems, which would require installation of 162,000 2-MW turbines per year from 2017 to 2056. When asked if such an undertaking was feasible, Red said, “Yes, I think it’s within reason and necessary.”

In his presentation entitled “What’s Happening in the Energy Market,” Brian Spencer, president of Spencer Composites Corp. (Sacramento, Calif.), talked specifically about CF use in oil exploration applications. He is particularly keen about CF’s potential use in risers, choke and kill lines, auxiliary lines and tethers in offshore drilling work, but he cites oil industry conservatism and CF shortage as two of several roadblocks that have prevented wider use of CF. “My customers come to me and say, ‘Don’t even consider carbon fiber because there’s not enough to go around,’” Spencer emphasized in a panel discussion toward the end of the conference.

Still, if his optimistic forecast bears fruit, CF could see substantial use in offshore applications. One drilling platform, Spencer says, in 5,000 ft of water with 25 wells could consume up to 1,862 metric tonnes (4.1 million lb) of CF. His company is also developing and testing a flywheel system for wind energy storage that uses 500 kg/1,100 lb of CF.

Composites veteran Ben Rasmussen, president of BMR Associates (North Plainfield, N.J.), is equally sanguine about CF’s future, claiming that “this industry is ready to explode.” He forecast robust compound annual growth rates through 2010: 19 percent for aerospace, 15 percent for industrial and 7 percent for sporting goods, with an overall industry average of 15 percent.

While the supply and demand theme was nearly inescapable throughout the conference, the overall mood and outlook was decidedly upbeat and optimistic. Peter Oswald, conference cochair and VP of sales and marketing at Toho Tenax America (Rockwood, Tenn.), one of the world’s largest producers of CF, noted during the panel discussion that CF production is expensive and far from a trivial enterprise. Supply is available for worthy applications: “If the customer comes to us and tells us they need a certain capacity at a certain time, we will take a look at the business case and, if it makes sense, we will make sure the capacity is there.”

Conference proceedings are available for $995. Visit www.compositesworld.com/conferences or contact Ralph Jessie at jessie@compositesworld.com, (207) 221-6603. Look for announcements soon about the dates and location for Carbon Fiber 2008.