As we head into the final month of Q3 2015, the stock market is agog with frequent mention of the “September swoon”. Crude oil has been trending parabolically and the world is preparing for oil prices to be “lower for longer”.
Agony and ecstasy
Economic turmoil has roiled the world and the downturn in China has lent credence to the “if China sneezes, the world catches a cold” syndrome. The battle for oil supremacy continues – though there are no real winners when it comes to the double dip in oil prices as it hurts the economy of all oil producing nations alike, albeit in different degrees. The supply glut is expected to persist through 2016 if one were to go by the statements of industrialized nations and oil majors. Globally, the trend is veering towards a command-and-control economy.
Per International Monetary Fund (IMF), the global economy is expected to expand by 3.3% this year compared to 3.4% in 2014. The U.S. is forecast to grow by 2.5%, up from 2.4% in 2014; the eurozone by 1.5%, up from 0.8% in 2014; China by 6.5%, down from 7.4% in 2014 [BBC News].
Oil price swings did not act as a deterrent to automobile sales in the first half of 2015. Car sales in Western Europe accelerated to an 8% y/y increase. Passenger vehicle sales in North America were almost on a tear and advanced by 5% y/y through July, with full-year volumes likely to surpass 20 million units for the first time on record [Scotia Bank]. Though gasoline prices have not proportionately followed that of crude oil, the focus on lightweighting continues to be a relentless pursuit for the automotive industry. Unsurprisingly, the steel and aluminum industry announced new stronger and lighter grades of the respective metals in August. Novelis says it has developed a new grade of weight-saving aluminum sheet designed to replace steel in bumpers, doors and other safety-critical areas of vehicle bodies and which is 2-3 times stronger than the grade currently in high-volume production [Automotive News]. Steel makers’ collaborating with automakers is at an all-time high. The latest ultra-high strength steel to develop lightweight vehicles is more formable and saves the cost of converting factories from spot welding to riveting and bonding. It is a live-and-let-live approach of using a judicious combination of steel, aluminum and carbon fiber by automakers. Case in point is the next version of the BMW 7-series sports sedan and the Audi R8 sports car that use a combination of all three materials.
The versatility of polyurethane (PU) foam cores in sandwich construction is well known and a proven concept. Mass production of the roof module of a car has been achieved using honeycomb sandwich structure with Class-A film. It features a paper honeycomb and two surrounding glass fiber mats which are sprayed in an impregnation process with a low density, thermally activated PU foam (from BASF) and pressed together with a solid-colored Class-A film [Plastics Today]. It was possible to produce a roof module that was 30% lighter than its predecessor, in a single operation, while retaining the same strength and flexural rigidity. The process displayed uniform wetting of the glass fiber mats without any drip, resulting in good adhesion. Once the semi-finished product was impregnated, it was pressed into shape in a heated mold along with the Class-A film. The PU system foams up slightly at the edge of the sandwich and creates a solid material composite between film, reinforcing glass fiber mats and the paper honeycomb core. There was flexibility in adjusting the PU reactivity to achieve longer spray time of 120 seconds coupled with short demolding times of 60 seconds. Unlike conventional composite parts where the individual layers are glued together in a multistage process, the current process involves a single manufacturing step.
This is yet another example of reduced cycle time in composites to gain greater favor in automotive production.
Aerodynamics & fuel economy
Boeing has been successful in upping its monthly production of the 787 Dreamliner from 10 to 14 in August and predicts deliveries of 130-135 for the year. Airbus has commenced building the first wings for its new A350-1000 and currently holds the mantle of the largest CFRP composite wing at 105 feet for each wing [Puget]. This is likely to be rivaled and superseded by Boeing’s planned 777-9X wing which will be 106 feet long – extending to 117 feet with a unique folding wingtip. Both the Airbus and Boeing wings are relatively long and thin made possible by the structural strength of carbon fiber composites.
Fuel efficient aerial dream machines? You can call them that.
The quest for commercially viable technology breakthroughs in recycling carbon fibers and composites is perennial. At the forthcoming Fakuma International Trade Fair for Plastics Processing in Germany, Cannon will reportedly present its innovative EU-funded project CRESIM (Carbon Recycling by Epoxy Special Impregnation) aimed at the development of proper processing methods for the manufacture of CFRP parts using recycled carbon fiber through closed loop manufacturing. The project addresses waste reuse by demonstrating a new innovative manufacturing process that potentially reuses up to 100% of the carbon fiber waste and scraps from different industrial sectors, thereby providing an opportunity for greening the production process and making efficiency gains [European Plastic Product Manufacturer].
Recall the Adidas slogan – impossible is nothing? The above just about sums it.
A glass fiber reinforced polyphthalamide (PPA) injection molding compound with high burst pressure and impact strength essential to withstand alternating stresses in dynamically stressed casing components in the automotive industry, has been introduced by Evonik. The molding compound also has good flow characteristics resulting in the molded parts having smooth defect-free surface [Plastics Today]. PPAs are semi-crystalline thermoplastics with high temperature stability and outstanding chemical resistance that can effectively replace metals in several applications.
Quick and efficient
Additive manufacturing (aka 3D printing) has taken the world by storm in drastically shortening the concept-to-commercialization cycle. If you think additive manufacturing and the aerospace sector make strange bedfellows, you may want to think again. SABIC‘s lightweight polyetherimide (PEI) flame-retardant resin coupled with Stratsys‘ Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) has addressed one of the biggest challenges facing manufacturing for the aerospace sector – the ability to produce small volume parts quickly and effectively [European Plastic Product Manufacturer]. The additive manufactured PEI (SABIC’s ULTEM) affords greater design flexibility, lower cost production runs and accelerated cycle times compliant with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and OEM flame smoke toxicity (FST) regulations. SABIC’s PEI has been certified to Airbus material specifications and the resin has been used to additive manufacture more than 1,000 flight parts in the A350 XWB aircraft fleet. The 3D-printed parts replaced traditionally-manufactured parts to increase supply chain flexibility. This success story has shown that additive manufacturing technology is making metal replacement development easier for OEMs than trying to upgrade a metal component to a traditionally-manufactured plastic replacement. It makes the whole cycle faster and less expensive. SABIC has an extensive range of carbon fiber(CF) reinforced PEI – can we expect a slew of 3D-printed CF reinforced PEI aircraft components in the future?
A beginning has been made. The first step has been taken. Could this just be the tip of the iceberg for additive manufacturing to make a big splash in composites usage in the aerospace and automotive sectors?
According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), 1,994 megawatts (MW) wind turbines were installed in the U.S. in the first half of 2015 – which is more than double the installations in the same period last year. Looking forward, more than 100 wind projects are under construction in 24 states, representing more than 13,600MW of total wind capacity. There are now 67,870MW of installed onshore wind capacity in the U.S.[Renewable Energy World]. Wind energy pricing is at an all-time low according to a new report released by the Department of Energy (DOE). The prices offered by wind projects to utility purchasers averaged under 2.5 cents/kWh for projects negotiating contracts in 2014 [Windpower Engineering & Development]. Wind projects built in 2014 had an average installed cost of $1,710/KW, down almost $600/KW from the peak in 2009 and 2010. In Europe, 584 offshore wind turbines were installed, adding 2.3GW capacity to the European electricity grid in H1 2015, per data released by the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). In total there is now 10GW of connected offshore wind [The Guardian]. The average turbine size increased from 3.5MW in 2014 to 4.2MW in the first half of 2015. Commercial orders for 8MW turbines are trickling in. In August, the U.K. authorized the Forward consortium of four European utilities to build the joint-largest offshore wind project in the world. The two 1.2GW wind farms total almost four times the capacity of the largest operational project [Bloomberg]. The U.K. is banking on offshore wind to help meet its renewable energy and carbon targets and had about 4.5GW of capacity out of a total of 8.8GW at the end of 2014.
The turbine blades, whether onshore or offshore continue to rely on composites. The trend in using a carbon fiber/glass fiber hybrid in offshore to reduce cost is gathering momentum.
Chemistry at work
Extensive use of Sheet Molding Compound (SMC) composites in automotive applications has been prevalent since the 80s. Progressive developments in reduction of the specific gravity have evolved over the years through recipe changes involving chemistry. The successful use of chemically (silane) treated glass microspheres (from 3M) by CSP in lowering the specific gravity of SMC to 1.2 has paved the way to allow significant weight savings in composite body panels for the 2016 Chevrolet Corvette. A total of 21 composite body panels including doors, decklids, quarter panels and fenders have been developed for the Corvette. The low-density SMC is reportedly cost competitive with aluminum with considerable savings on the tooling cost vis-a-vis aluminum [Plastics News].
The trend in use of biotechnology for recycling of carbon fibers is embryonic. Around 3,000Tonnes of CFRP waste is generated in Europe alone. The Hohenstein Institute in Germany has reported success in using suitable microorganisms to break down the epoxy resin matrix in CFRPs and returning it to the materials cycle as a metabolite. Simultaneously the carbon fibers are extracted without damage so that they can be reclaimed for use in new products [Innovation in Textiles]. This biotechnology route could supplement the existing multi-stage pyrolytic process for recycling carbon fibers.
A discerning global trend is the focus on a green environment and emphasis on recycling/conversion of all forms of waste to usable products. Typical examples are denim wear and sneakers from ocean plastic waste, ultra-clean fuel from unwashed waste plastics, to name a few. The fact that leading brand names such as Adidas and others are involved in such green projects underscores the relevance in today’s context. Believe it or not, the next great renewable energy source is tipped to be algae biofuel according to the U.S. Department of Energy. It is the newest and seemingly most viable form of clean energy, besting even solar. Algae, found throughout the oceans employ photosynthesis to create energy using sunlight. Some types of algae produce oils that they use to store energy – implying certain algae can be grown and harvested to produce biofuel, a net carbon-neutral process [Yahoo Finance].
When it comes to technology, we are living in a world where breakthroughs are imminent – be it graphene which is being touted as the material of the future (read next decade when it should be commercially viable) or biofuels where aviation tests have already shown promising results.
Millennials are bound to reap the benefits from such exciting technology breakthroughs that have the potential to fructify commercially in the coming decade.
Till the next post,