At the outset, I wish all readers a Happy and Prosperous 2015 – an oft repeated start-of-the-year greeting, but one that merits mention nevertheless, for the sheer optimism and hope that it conveys.
Dollar Dominance ?
2014 was another roller coaster year, though the last quarter showed signs of a near return to normalcy, crude oil price fluctuations notwithstanding and shades of justified hope on global growth in 2015.
The International Monetary Fund [IMF] predicts global growth of 3.8% this year compared to 3.3% in 2014 [BBC News] – the fastest growth since 2011. The steep drop in crude oil price implies consumers have more to spend (less pain at the pump) on cars, furniture, appliances, whilst also reducing business costs. Oil price aside, the main source of strength apparently is the buoyant US economy that is expected to register around 3.1% growth in 2015. The 5% growth in Q3, 2014 was the swiftest for any quarter since 2003 and the world’s biggest economy is on an extended win streak [Yahoo Finance]. China is slowing as it transitions from investment to consumption. It was driven by investment and export performance that couldn’t last forever. Goldman Sachs expects several years of declining growth rates for China. Japan is sliding into a recession after a disastrous Q3, 2014. Russia appears headed for one, while Europe is barely growing and Greece in the news yet again. There are some rumbling sources of potential trouble on prospects of a really strong growth year, but there is a decent chance that 2015 will be another year of gradual post-crisis rehabilitation [BBC News].
Probably a touch of cautious optimism is called for ?
Polyurethane: one-upmanship on epoxy
Rapid strides continue to be made in new developments in the automotive sector in spite of low gas prices posing a threat to electric vehicles and, to a lesser extent, hybrids. Composite leaf springs are not a novelty – however, it is the combination of resin matrix, fiber reinforcement and processing technique that continuously undergoes technological advancements resulting in improved performance. The suspension of the new Volvo XC90 employs a transverse fiber-reinforced composite leaf spring instead of the usual array of coil springs. The compact design achieves a weight saving of 4.5 kg with additional functional benefits such as smoother ride, improved NVH (noise, vibration, harshness) and increased trunk volume as there are no suspension turrets [Plastics Today]. The RTM process for this composite spring uses Polyurethane (PU) resin from Henkel. Cycle time, that has been the bane of RTM in automotive applications, has been addressed through the use of low viscosity PU resulting in rapid mold-fill, fast fiber impregnation and short injection times. With a curing rate that is substantially faster than epoxy resins, cycle times are shorter, overall.
The quest in achieving shorter cycle times for more widespread use of composites in automotive applications, continues unabated.
The Abarth 695 Biposto has been described by its manufacturer as the smallest supercar with the perfect synthesis between street performance and racetrack thrill. Extensive use of carbon fiber results in an overall weight of 997 kg of this two-seater that also uses Polycarbonate (PC) glazing for the front fixed window having built-in sliding panels. SABIC‘s Exatec coating technology reportedly meets European regulatory requirements for transparency, scratch and abrasion resistance for PC-based vehicle windows [Plastics Today]. CFRP composites are used for the front bumper, side skirts, part of the dashboard, under the rear bumper (diffuser), side mirrors and seats.
Driven by surging Mexican factories, full-year 2014 light vehicle output for North America totaled 17.24 million – up 7% from 2013, according to estimates from Automotive News Data Center. The forecast for 2015 is projected at around 17.4 million vehicles. Mexico’s free-trade agreement covering dozens of other countries have made it an attractive base for exports overseas and to South America [Automotive News]. While US output and Canada production were both up 5% in 2014, Mexico gained a whopping 12%.
Mexico is the new manufacturing destination for several global auto majors judging by the spate of massive investments in that nation in recent times.
Holy Grail of Designers
The aerospace sector has been in the news recently with the induction of the Airbus A350 and, apparently, orders rolling in for this aircraft rivaling the Boeing 787. As is well known, both planes use composites in excess of 50% by weight. Commercial aircraft use thousands of brackets from the cockpit to the tail of the plane. If made from metal, the total amount of brackets can add a significant amount of weight. Victrex has developed a new Polyaryletherketone (PAEK) -based polymer and an innovative hybrid molding technology that enable overmolding of a PAEK-based composite with fiber reinforced Polyetheretherketone (PEEK) injection molding grades. The hybrid molded composite bracket is able to deliver up to 60% weight savings compared to stainless steel and titanium, while offering equivalent or better mechanical properties such as strength, stiffness and fatigue [Plastics Today]. The hybrid process uses a pre-formed composite like an insert in the injection molding tool and allows the continuously reinforced thermoplastic composite to be pre-fabricated and used in the same way as a metallic insert in the injection molding process. The PAEK-based composite is thermoformed prior to insertion. The new PAEK-based polymer allows for 70% fiber loading and processing temperatures (enabling faster manufacturing cycle times) that are approximately 40°C less than traditional PEEK-based composites and creates a very strong bond between a continuously-reinforced thermoplastic composite and an injection-molding polymer. The PAEK bracket can be produced in minutes compared to the hours it would take for a metal or thermoset equivalent. Overall part cost is reduced through elimination of such steps as edge sealing and X-ray inspections. The PEEK polymers can be either carbon or glass fiber reinforced grades, typically with 30-40% fiber loading.
Just goes to show that even small components in an aircraft merit consideration when it comes to exploring weight reduction possibilities.
OFFSHORE WIND – THE FUTURE
Much has been spoken and written about wind energy becoming competitive with conventional electric generating technologies like natural gas and coal. In fact, a recent economic analysis by the leading investment banking firm Lazard using the “levelized cost of electricity”(LCOE) metric indicates that renewable generating technologies are not only competitive with fossil fuels, but are also cheaper than natural gas/coal in some markets [Forbes]. LCOE (referenced in one of my earlier posts), represents the per-kWh cost (in real dollars) of building and operating a power plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle. LCOE for renewable generation is/can be lower in the near-term future than the “average” price of electricity provided by the electric power grid. In the most recent Annual Energy Outlook, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) began using the “levelized avoided cost of energy” (LACE) for assessing the economic competitiveness of different generating technologies. The LACE metric estimates what it would have cost the grid to generate the electricity otherwise displaced by a new generation project. IEA expects offshore wind costs to drop 45% by 2050, while land-based wind expenses will decline by a relatively smaller 25%. The Department of Energy predicts a 40% price cut by 2030, while the UK (undisputed leader in offshore wind generation) expects turbine prices to drop overall expenses a sizable 17% by 2020 [The Motley Fool]. General Electric and other corporations are pushing for bigger, stronger and more efficient turbines in the > 4.1 MW range. While carbon fiber has been the mainstay for offshore wind turbine blades, glass fiber producers are introducing high modulus fibers to combat the stranglehold of the former. The key is in lighter weight due to longer blades – carbon fiber does have an edge over glass fiber on this score.
Only time will tell.
TOUCH OF INGENUITY
Stampable thermoplastics that received rave reviews in the 90s when they were introduced, continue to make progress in automotive applications. Faurecia has developed an integral structural floor comprising the front and rear passenger floor and trunk floor in glass fiber reinforced polyamide66 and made by the thermostamping technique. The thermoplastic composite also makes it possible to weld and overmold parts [Plastics Today]. The technology reportedly reduces part weight and costs compared to bonding, while producing a material able to withstand the very high temperatures created during painting that employs cataphoresis (cathodic electrodeposition). To muffle the noise, acoustic components were incorporated into the empty space between the upper and lower layers of the thermoplastic structure. The composite floor is 16.5 kg lighter than its steel counterpart (33% weight saving) and also reduces CO2 emissions by 1.65 gm/km.
CRYSTAL BALL GAZING
When it comes to carbon fibers and CFRP composites, the Japanese have few peers. A 2014 report highlighting the Japanese perspective on automotive sector penetration predicts usage of CFRP parts will broaden from selected parts such as hoods and roofs in the 2013-2016 timeframe, to major structural components between 2017 and 2019 – especially in electric vehicles [Plastics Today]. Carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastics are expected to make inroads in less demanding applications such as interior panels in 2019 and then extending to exterior panels. Between 2020-2025, lower material costs, shorter cycle times and improved yields will see greater adoption in structural components.
Considering the catalytic role played by Japanese companies (carbon fiber producers and automobile manufacturers) in expanding the market base for CFRP composites, obviously they have done their homework right on this prediction!
COMPETE TO CO-EXIST
CFRP composites are extending beyond rebar application in the construction industry. A lighthouse in Spain features a CFRP-GFRP combination. Several CFRP tubular profiles support a set of GFRP floor slabs and their bracings which surround the central tube that leads the stairs to the upper part in the lantern room [European Plastics News]. The structure consists of eight CFRP (epoxy matrix) tubular profiles, 31 meters high. The columns (circular section of 250mm diameter) are positioned in the vertex of an octagon inside a circumference of 4.5 meters diameter in the lighthouse base and 4 meters at its top. Four horizontal octagonal rings in GFRP with a diameter of 190mm are placed at different levels of the lighthouse every 6 meters. Five GFRP composite decks are distributed along the whole height of the lighthouse.
That GFRP and CFRP can co-exist in the design of a single structure – need further evidence?
SHALE GAS SUCCESS
The impact of the shale gas revolution on ethylene and propylene market dynamics has been dwelt with at length in several of my earlier posts. Less expensive ethane derived from shale gas makes ethylene production highly attractive and is behind large-scale US capacity additions. Companies such as Dow Chemical, Chevron Philips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell are betting on increased competitiveness in the US and are constructing crackers to produce ethylene [Plastics Today]. Global ethylene capacity is poised to increase from 167 million Tons/year in 2014 to 208.5 million Tons by 2017. The shift away from naphtha definitely puts propylene availability and price at a risk – but alternate routes are expected to materialize commercially in 2016 to restore parity, to some extent.
Crude oil price is expected to hover in the $60-70/barrel range through 2015 if one were to go by the budget projections of OPEC nations and others. From a consumer perspective, the drop in gas price at the pump was the silver lining in Q4, 2014. Will it continue through 2015?
A surging US dollar has battered most major currencies, with the euro currently trading at almost its lowest since 2006.
Fingers crossed as we wait to see what unfolds this year.
Till the next post,
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