The markets: Pressure vessels (2017)

Pressure vessels are a big and fast-growing market for composites materials and processing equipment. In 2017 and beyond, this could be especially true in Type IV and newer Type V vessels for hydrogen storage.

High-pressure gas storage vessels represent one of the biggest and fastest-growing markets for advanced composites. 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 EU Euro 6 Standard, which became effective earlier this year, 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.

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Five years ago, the world’s natural gas-powered vehicles (NGVs) — cars, trucks, buses, and fork-lift vehicles — numbered about 10 million. By 2023, the NGV population could be more than 65 million. Based on strong demand in Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Iran, Italy and Pakistan, NGV deliveries could reach nearly 11 million per year by 2023. The vast majority (94%) 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 have fielded FCV demonstrators and test fleets. The number of new-build FCVs was up to 4000 in 2014 and, says Chris Red, president of Composites Forecasts and Consulting LLC (Mesa, AZ, US), 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.

In 2016, Red predicts that annual production could approach 12.5 million pressure vessels 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 US$5.8 billion in carbon fibers. To keep up with demand, carbon fiber manufacturers will likely need to produce an additional 30,000 MT of fiber. And vessel manufacturers will almost certainly need to step up production levels. That means increased automation.

A growing and likely huge, sustainable market for pressure vessels is the growing construction of seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) desalination plants. SWRO depends on membrane systems that serially cleanse water piped onshore from the ocean (see “Composites slake the world's thirst,” under "Realted Content," at top right). These membranes must be encased in membrane housings. Filament-wound fiberglass pressure vessels are used almost exclusively for this purpose today, in quantities of as many as 6,000 per desalination plant. The Freedonia Group Inc. (Cleveland, Ohio) predicts demand for SWRO housings and related equipment will increase 6.9% per year. In the US alone, the market could be worth US$495 million annually in 2017.

Linerless, all-composite pressure vessels, which fit the more recent and radical Type V classification, are in the news: Infinite Composites Technologies (ICT), Tulsa, OK, US) is one of a growing number of example of Type V vessels coming to market. The company’s patented infinite composite pressure vessel or infiniteCPV (iCPV), all-composite design allows for users to take advantage of the maximum fuel storage capacity while lowering the weight. Traditional liners take up valuable storage space and reportedly add unnecessary weight. The iCPV provides 10% more useable volume while reducing weight by 90% compared to traditional vessels. And while the company has a focus on developing next-generation fuel storage and delivery systems for natural gas vehicles and storage applications, it has recently been gaining traction in the adoption of a Type V tank technology to the space industry. with a plethora of startups from SpaceX to Blue Origin, there is a lot of movement in the space race and ICT sees an opportunity as these companies need high-pressure gas storage tanks. Every rocket uses a range of tank sizes for various needs from propulsion to breathing systems, but the one common goal each of these companies is to have the lightest system possible. 

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Pressure vessels for alternative fuels, 2014-2023

Lower fuel costs and escalating emissions standards are driving a 10 percent annual growth in alternative fuel pressure vessel sales.