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27th October 2016, UK

Carbon fibre: Japan’s success story

By 2020 the global composites market is projected to reach US$90 billion, growing at a compound annual growth rate of between 7% and 9%, writes Denzil Walton for JEC Group, ahead of JEC Asia, which will take place in Singapore from November 15-17.

Asia-Pacific represents nearly 50% of world production in volume – a figure which is forecast to rise to 53% by 2018.

Hakuto is the sole Google Lunar XPRIZE team from Japan, a global leader in space robotics. © Hakuto

Japan is playing a key role in the growth of the composites market, particularly in the area of carbon fibre, where it is the world’s largest manufacturer, meeting around 70% of global demand.

Carbon fibre is considered an important contributor to solving global environmental problems, since its lightweight properties significantly reduce CO2 emissions over the entire lifecycle of products in which it is used. As a result, demand for carbon fibre is expanding across a wide range of applications, especially wind energy, aerospace, automotive, and pressure vessels.

This is no surprise. Manufacturers are interested in producing aircraft and automobiles that are more fuel efficient, increasing the size of wind turbine blades to increase their efficiency and producing strong lightweight storage vessels for alternative transportation fuels such as hydrogen. Carbon fibre and carbon fibre reinforced polymers (CFRPs) provide maximum lightweighting potential and are thus primary candidate materials for achieving each of these goals.

Japan is particularly strong in the aerospace industry, where it is leading the design, manufacture and processing of CFRP structures for aerospace applications.

The Mitsubishi Regional Jet, for example, a small-sized commercial aircraft being developed in Japan, relies on CFRP structures for its high performance, while almost 35% of Boeing 787 structures are being made by Japanese industries using mostly CFRP.

The Big Three

Global carbon fibre demand is anticipated to be 92,802 tonnes by 2018, based on a 12.5% compound annual growth rate. Total worldwide production nameplate capacity of all carbon fibre tows is expected to increase from 109,230 tonnes in 2012 to 159,000 tonnes in 2020. Three of the key global players in the carbon fibre market are Japanese: Toray, Teijin and Mitsubishi Rayon.

The largest carbon fibre producer in the world, Toray Industries, recently put a multi-year contract in place with Boeing to supply carbon fibre for the 787 Dreamliner and 777X.

Mitsubishi Rayon recently announced a partnership with Lamborghini on research and development into the mass production of carbon fibre shells and panels. The project is anticipated to lead to higher levels of manufacturing automation that are more suitable for larger scale production, with great advantages in process stability.

In September 2016, announced that it has agreed to acquire Continental Structural Plastics Holdings (CSP), a leading automotive composite supplier in North America. Through this acquisition, Teijin intends to establish an automotive composite products business in North America, and to accelerate its expansion as a Tier 1 supplier of high-performance composites to the global automotive market.

Composites news from Japan

Japanese space race team Hakuto recently unveiled its lunar rover design for the Google sponsored Lunar XPRIZE – an unprecedented competition to challenge engineers, entrepreneurs and innovators from around the world to develop low-cost methods of robotic space exploration.

Hakuto’s approach is a ‘Dual Rover’ system based on lightweight, heat resistant CFRP composites supplied by Toray Industries.

Staying in outer space, innovator Elon Musk has revealed that much of his SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System, including its fuel tanks, will be made from carbon fibre. The plan is for SpaceX to take humans to Mars and beyond, possibly by 2025. Musk has secured a deal with Toray I to supply carbon fibre for SpaceX, which is switching to carbon fibres from aluminum as a lighter body will allow more cargo to be loaded.

Moving to the aeronautics industry, Japan’s first domestically produced stealth fighter prototype, the X-2, features a special carbon fibre composite material that absorbs radar waves to keep the plane from being detected. The jet is being developed at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries plant in Toyoyama.

Returning back to earth, Japanese automotive manufacturer Mazda is looking to cut weight from its next-generation MX-5 Miata with an affordable carbon fibre. This is big news, because the current MX-5 uses steel and aluminium, and Mazda currently does not use carbon fibre in any of its cars.

Also in the automotive industry, Toyota has partnered with BMW on the next generation of its supercar, the Toyota Supra, which will be unveiled in 2018. BMW is also working on its own supercar, the Z5, which will have many parts in common with the joint Toyota Supra, including carbon fibre composite technology. All of BMW’s Z models now incorporate structural pillars and roof structures made with CFRP.

Japan is a world leader in the transition to hydrogen-based energy for vehicles. This is in line with the drive to develop lighter parts and materials to reduce energy consumption. Mitsui, Toray and Hexagon Lincoln have entered into a joint development agreement to conduct a viability study into the joint manufacture and supply of CRFP high-pressure hydrogen cylinders for vehicles in Japan.

Wind energy is expected to be one of the fastest growing markets for composites. According to Lucintel’s 2016 State of the Industry Report, the total composites market in wind energy grew by 24.2% in 2015. Research firm Markets and Markets projects the wind turbine composite material market will be worth $5.5 billion by 2020. Mitsubishi Rayon and Danish firm Fibreline Composites have agreed to form a joint venture to manufacture and distribute carbon fibre composite laminates for wind turbine blades. The joint venture aims to offer competitive carbon fibre components to wind turbine makers through a closely integrated supply chain, which will help reduce the price of wind energy.

Finally, researchers from Japan’s Kyoto University have found that molybdenum silicide-based composites improve the efficiency of gas turbine blades.

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