Composites on a high, driven primarily by revving up of global automotive production & sales

Hello all,

Here we go again with another post…..

Dreams die first ?

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The global economy appears to be in the recovery mode if one were to go by sentiment alone – though the extent of positivity tends to swing to extremes depending on the continent. The signals are definitely mixed. But hey, one needs to add a dash of optimism at times and hope for the best. Oil prices continue to wreak havoc, with the knowledgeable ones who wear their hearts in their sleeves, predicting a further dip to the $35-40 range in the next three months. If there is certainty, it is the fact that the Goldilocks territory for the oil sector is a thing of the past – at least till 2020. With a forecast of $55-60 in 2016; oil hitting the sweet spot on price anytime in the near future can be ruled out, per industry biggies and market analysts.

The present glut is for real, even without factoring production from Libya and Iran entering the market.

The World Steel Association forecasts that global steel demand will decrease by 1.7% in 2015, before growing by 0.7% in 2016. China’s steel demand has waned at an unprecedented speed of 3.5% this year and a projected 2% in 2016 following the slowing of the nation’s economic growth [CNBC]. Steel prices have fallen sharply this year and the industry is in dire straits. The euro zone’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for October was 52.3 which was just above the threshold level of 50.0 that separates growth from contraction. PMI in the U.S. came in at 54.1, up from 53.1 in September. Japan’s PMI came in at 52.4, up from 51.0 in September.

A silver lining in the cloud for major economies ? You could say that without the proverbial grain of salt!

Lowering cycle time

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Suitability for high volume manufacturing is a key prerequisite for composites to make greater inroads in the automotive sector. The pursuit in developing fast curing resins by producers, to result in shorter fabrication cycle times has been relentless. The upside of such developments is the simultaneous tweaking of technology to result in improved processing. A recent success story has been the production of chassis components for a Zenos sports car using carbon fiber and an isocyanate-based resin system for the honeycomb sandwich panels. The technology is reportedly based on proprietary structures that blend carbon fiber and other materials of varying densities [Plastics Today]. The end composite is 15-20% lighter requiring less resin and carbon fiber (CF) with significantly less material waste. The chassis components include front and rear bulkheads, body sides. floorpan and the cantrail.

Lamborghini is synonymous with luxury sports cars and, of course, carbon fiber composites (CFRP). It was one of the first adopters of CFRP in the 1980s and a die-hard autoclave-cured thermoset based composites enthusiast. Not any more, though. Lamborghini is now focusing on lower cost technologies in its latest models using chopped carbon fiber reinforced SMC for both body-in-white (BIW) and aesthetic parts as also RTM processing for its vehicles [Plastics Today].

The emergence of carbon fiber-based SMC in automotive applications has been gaining ground since 2014. Key takeaways are lower molded component cost and short cycle times (depending on component thickness). Recall how glass fiber-based SMC became a runaway success in the automotive industry in the 1980s by riding on its fast cycle time.

Focus on recycling

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Considering the high cost of carbon fiber and CFRP, efforts on recycling technologies continue unabated. Composites Recycling Technology Center has been set up in Washington to develop new products from uncured carbon fiber composite prepreg. More than 2 million lbs of CF prepreg are disposed off as landfill annually in the State [Plastics News]. The main sources of uncured CF prepreg include Boeing, Toray, Zodiac Aerospace and Janicki Industries. The recycled material will not be used for aerospace structural components. It will instead be used for tennis racquets, sports and recreational goods.

The quest to recycle composites and plastics is perennial.

PUR systems gaining ground

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In spite of gasoline prices tanking (thanks to crude oil glut), the lightweighting challenge continues in the automotive industry. Polyurethane (PUR) resins are making advances by leaps and bounds as a viable matrix option in composites. Covestro has come out with a new PUR system for CFRP structural components that has three times the energy absorption potential of comparable resins, thereby providing a high level of occupant safety if a collision does occur [Plastics Today]. CFRP parts were produced by the HP-RTM process with a fiber content (fabrics with oriented CF) of around 54% by volume. The low-viscosity PUR ensures rapid filling of mold and quick cure to result in cycle times of only a few minutes.

Another arrow in the CFRP-HP-RTM quiver? Apparently so.

Bigger & blowing strong

wind mills (sept 29)

News on large offshore wind farms in Europe have been making waves very recently. The world’s largest offshore wind farm across the Irish Sea is expected to be completed in 2018. It will generate 660MW of power from 87 wind turbines and provide electricity to 12.5 million Europeans [Christian Science Monitor]. The individual turbine capacity will be a combo of 7MW (47 turbines from Siemens) and 8MW (40 turbines from Vestas). The second largest UK offshore wind project announced last week is a 336MW wind farm off the east coast of England to be built by RWE AG and three other partners. Siemens will provide 56 turbines with unit capacity of 6MW [Bloomberg Business]. The first working day of November carried news of the first floating wind farm in the UK to be operational in 2017. It consists of five floating 6MW turbines attached to the seabed by a three-point mooring spread and anchoring system which will then be connected to an array of cables and an export cable finally transporting the produced energy from the wind farm to the shore [Inverse]. Carbon fiber to a significant extent and possibly glass/carbon hybrids would figure prominently in the blade construction depending on the manufacturer’s design.

In spite of Britain’s recent subsidy cuts to renewable energy, offshore wind has apparently been let off the hook.

Potential breakthrough ?

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Efforts to find a commercially viable alternate precursor to polyacrylonitrile (PAN) was been work-in-progress for the past few years in both the U.S. and Europe. The European Union (EU) constituted a consortium of 13 partners in 2013 to work on a polyethylene-based (PE) carbon fiber precursor. Test production has reportedly commenced at the pilot plant facility in Germany and is expected to run through 2017 -this will then transition to the industrial phase with a 250 tonnes/year plant in 2018 followed by the commercial phase in 2020 through a 1,000 tonnes/year production plant [Plastics Today]. The project envisages a 29% reduction in carbon fiber cost by 2018.

With all forecasts pointing to a quantum jump in use of CFRP composites in automotive in the next decade, the timing on development and commercialization of a PE-based precursor could not have been opportune.

In September, ISO published ISO 19095 – a new series of Standards that present guidelines for evaluating the adhesion interface performance of plastics-metal assemblies. The methods set out in this Standard are intended to ensure that the integrity of the joint is realized through the interface. The adhesion interface performance is tested on tensile strength, shear strength, peel strength, bending strength, impact strength and sealing properties [Plastics Today].

Best of both worlds

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The use of structural adhesives is an important link in the lightweighting chain for the automotive and aerospace industries. The extent of adhesives used in a car is poised to register a 35% increase from current levels of around 15 kg per vehicle. Technological advances in structural adhesives, especially hybrids have gained momentum in recent years. The focus has been on developing adhesives that can cure rapidly and attain handling strengths fast enough to enable the bonded components to be load-bearing and also withstand stresses. While one-part cyanoacrylate adhesives are well known for their rapid cure, the bonded joints lack the ability to bear heavy loads and suffer from inability to provide high peel strength and shear – key requirements of adhesives in general, more so in the structural category [Design News]. Epoxies are good structural adhesives in view of their polar nature – but require long fixture times ranging from 15 to 120 minutes. A cyanoacrylate-epoxy hybrid (with a cationic catalyst for the former) introduced by Henkel is a two-part formulation mixed in a 1:1 ratio. The cationic catalyst initiates cure of the epoxy (which is cationic curable) and the cyanoacrylate cures on exposure to ambient moisture. Room temperature curing results in a 3 to 5-minute fixture time. This hybrid adhesive is the best of both worlds – fast fixture time and substrate versatility of the cyanoacrylate with the inherent advantages of structural epoxy – high bond strengths and ability to fill gaps.

Lends credence to the philosophy of combining two materials with differing chemistries to provide industrial solutions in bonding technology.

Drones – growing global market

 

 

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The market for military drones is expected to almost double and hit $10 billion by 2024. The global defense and security market for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) is expected to expand at 5.5% annually through 2020 [Agence France-Presse]. Operators are moving to expand their missions beyond visual surveillance and reconnaissance and are introducing sophisticated intelligence and electronic warfare systems, as well as a wider range of munitions. As technology advances, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) are likely to be pressed into service, featuring stealthy characteristics and advanced payloads and weaponry and operate alongside manned aircraft, possibly replacing them eventually. Lightweight advanced composites will be the direct beneficiary as they are essential in increasing UAV flight time. Reinforcements would primarily be glass fiber and carbon fiber, especially the latter.

Thanks (??) to geopolitical turmoil, composites are poised for great growth in the UAV sector. Aah…if only world peace were a reality!

Perhaps the news that made major headlines since my last post was on auto majors venturing into Electric Vehicles (EVs) and Hydrogen powered Fuel Cell vehicles (FCVs), low gasoline prices not withstanding. Despite many pooh-poohing the hydrogen FCV concept as Utopian and cost prohibitive to be commercially viable, FCVs (and EVs) are the future (read next decade) when costs are bound to drop through technology breakthroughs and planned infrastructure (more refueling stations). The collaborative efforts in Japan and the creation of consortiums in Europe from diversified groups have begun in right earnest and the positive end results are just a matter of time. Recall how wind energy went through a similar cycle in the initial stages and how costs have dropped dramatically the past year. Patience is definitely a virtue – more so when it relates to technology breakthroughs.

Whilst both EVs and FCVs use composites, the more extensive use of CFRP in the latter (including the hydrogen storage tanks) makes it a wee bit more exciting!

Our next post will be published in January 2016.

Till then,

Cheers,

S. Sundaram

Twitter@essjaycomposite

Website: www.essjaycomposites.com

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