CW Blog

The quest for lower-cost carbon fiber has, for the last decade or so, focused on development of a carbon fiber precursor derived from non-petroleum sources that can produce a fiber with mechanical attributes comparable to — or potentially comparable to — fiber derived from petroleum sources.

The precursor that represents the current state of the art is the monomer acrylonitrile (ACN), which is derived from petroleum and polymerized into polyacrylonitrile (PAN), which then is converted into carbon fiber via spinning, oxidation, carbonization and surface treatment.

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CFP Composites (Solihull, UK) is a disruptor in the composites industry. Managing director Simon Price led the team that developed a pyrolysis process to recycle carbon fiber, which was then sold to ELG in 2011. He then formed Carbon Fibre Preforms, now CFP Composites, which patented a very fast process for mixing chopped carbon fiber with resin and  forming lightweight preforms and parts with zero waste. The company’s FR.10 material is made using this process. It can withstand 1500°C for 7 hours and is stable at 3000°C. It is reportedly the first carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) material to pass the ISO 9705/E 603 room corner test for marine and offshore applications, withstanding 20 minutes of flame at temperatures > 1200°C without any further intumescent or fire-retardant additives or coatings.

Fig. 4 “Withstanding fire without the weight”, CW Feb 2019

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The spring season is usually busy, especially considering the number of conferences and trade shows this time of year. In March, JEC World was as active as ever, and immediately upon my return to the U.S. from Paris I headed to Detroit for the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) Annual Technical Conference (ANTEC). In late May, I traveled to Charlotte, N.C., for the annual SAMPE conference and exhibition. While each event gave me the opportunity to continue my own education about composites, so much of the value of attending is in catching up with industry acquaintances and numerous former colleagues, as well as meeting new folks heretofore unknown to me. The discussions help me keep up with the vibe of the industry, be that technical or commercial.

SPE and the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering
(SAMPE), organizers of two of the above events, are among the oldest professional societies serving the plastics and composites industries. In fact, SPE celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2017, and SAMPE its 75th this year in Charlotte. SPE represents a broad spectrum of plastics, and readers of this magazine are probably more familiar with its Automotive Composites Conference and Exhibition (ACCE) held in Detroit each September. This is organized by the Composites and Automotive Divisions of SPE. I have been on the organizing committee since 2005 and served as general chair of the conference four times. I have also been chair of the Thermosets and Composites Divisions during my many years of membership, which started back in 1992 when I attended my first SPE event, a Thermoset Division conference in Raleigh, N.C. My involvement with SAMPE goes back even earlier, with my joining the society shortly after I arrived in Detroit in 1984. Believe it or not, SAMPE was doing “automotive things” way back then! Over the years, I have been a session chair several times and have presented multiple papers at SAMPE conferences.

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Advantageous features of thermoplastic composites, such as toughness, comparatively high out-of-plane strength and sustainability/recyclability, have attracted aircraft design engineers to the notion of thermoplastic composite primary structures for decades. But aircraft manufacturing engineers have been uncertain about finding a cost-effective way to advance them from CAD simulation to the production floor. They are not, however, deterred: Efforts to develop the necessary manufacturing technologies have continued across the globe — perhaps nowhere as tenaciously as in the Netherlands.

In 2009, nine Dutch industrial companies and research institutes, together with Airbus (Toulouse, France), formed the Thermoplastic Affordable Primary Aircraft Structure (TAPAS) Consortium. The initiative expanded to 12 partners in 2014 and continued as TAPAS2. Targeting  Airbus-developed applications under TAPAS2, GKN Fokker (Hoogeveen, Netherlands) recently developed a fuselage demonstrator using what it calls a “butt-jointed orthogrid technology” that enables cost-effective production of a thermoplastic composite fuselage design.

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If automated fiber placement (AFP) and automated tape laying (ATL) were the manufacturing processes that enabled widespread application of composites in the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, then it will also be AFP/ATL that lead the way for the next generation of commercial aircraft, now on drawing boards. The difference this time around? Rate.

Boeing estimates that, by 2037, the world will need more than 31,000 new single-aisle aircraft to meet passenger demand. Airbus forecasts a need for more than 28,000 single-aisle aircraft by 2037. Both companies are considering replacements of their single-aisle stalwarts — the 737 (Boeing) and the A320 (Airbus). Both companies are expected to employ composites significantly on any new aircraft they develop. Both companies are telling their supply chains to expect production rates for these planes of 60-100 planes per month, with emphasis on 100. The single-aisle category, for both companies, represents about two thirds of total global demand, which means that the manufacturing environment developed for single-aisle aircraft will become the default manufacturing environment for aerocomposites for the foreseeable future.

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