Here we go again with another post, as it is back to business for many after the summer sojourn.
Growth, albeit tepid
The global economy continues to face headwinds midway through 3Q 2016. The Brexit vote caught financial markets by surprise with equity prices declining worldwide in its immediate aftermath. In July, the World Bank downgraded it’s 2016 global growth forecast to 2.4% from 2.9%, based on sluggish growth in advanced economies, stubbornly low commodity prices, weak global trade and diminishing capital flows [The World Bank]. The U.S. GDP growth in 2016 is expected to be around 2.0%. The European Union is projected to have a GDP growth of 1.5% this year. China is forecast to grow at 6.7% while India’s robust expansion is expected to hold steady at 7.6%.
Geopolitics continue to wreak havoc on crude oil prices. High inventory levels have not been balanced by increased demand, thereby leading to continued depressed pricing. Oil pundits and economists alike remain flummoxed by the whipsaw trends.
In this context, I am reminded of the “change is the only constant” oxymoron.
Cool, stronger alternative
Composites continue to storm the metals bastion through technological advancements in materials and processing techniques. Composite cooling fans for large trucks, buses, off-road construction vehicles and mining, oil and gas industries are now a reality, replacing blades hitherto made out of thermoplastics and metal. Engines and their cooling systems are exposed to abrasive materials and are subject to extreme high and low temperatures. A thermoset molding compound with high glass content incorporating a tough resin was successfully developed and tested in the U.S. A key aspect in the development was designing the shape of the fan’s leading edge to get the most air movement, but in an acceptable geometry that could be molded [Plastics News]. The fan used eight blades measuring from 68 to 100 inches in diameter and passed wind tunnel tests.The combination of high strength-weight ratio, coupled with corrosion resistance and ability to be mass produced, enabled composites to be a success for this demanding application [IDI Composites International].
Confluence of pluses
The use of 3M hollow glass microspheres in SMC and other molding compounds is well known. Following successful introduction of polypropylene filled glass microspheres in 2015, an Italian compounder has now introduced polyamide6 grades with the same glass microspheres [Plastics Today]. Available in various configurations, the new grades provide reduction in weight, good strength and shock resistance, shorter cycle times and exceptional dimensional stability of the molded parts. The glass microspheres can be used alone or in combination with chemically bonded glass fiber, which allows for modulation of the material properties, in order to achieve required goals in terms of lightness, mechanical performance and price. This augurs well for use in automotive applications in consideration of the new limits on CO2 emissions set at 95 grams/km starting from 2021.
The nano revolution
Advanced composite materials such as CFRP used in the Boeing and Airbus passenger jets reduce overall weight of the plane by almost 20% vis-a-vis aluminum. While aluminum is known to withstand relatively large impacts before cracking, the layers in composites can break apart due to relatively small impacts. Polyether sulfone (PES) resins are known to be used to impart impact resistance to thermoset epoxy resin-based composite structures. New research has shown that carbon nanotubes can be used to fasten layers of composite materials together. The nanotubes are atom-thin rolls of carbon that are incredibly strong despite their microscopic stature [Plastics Today]. The carbon nanotubes were embedded in a polymer matrix and pressed between layers of CFRP. Resembling tiny, vertically-aligned stitches, the nanotubes reportedly worked themselves within the crevices of each composite layer, serving as a scaffold to hold the layers together – displaying 30% higher strength (in a tension-bearing test) and withstanding greater forces before breaking apart. Currently, the plies of horizontal carbon fibers in a composite are held by the matrix and strengthened by Z-pinning and 3-D weaving that involve pinning or weaving bundles of carbon fibers through composite layers which ultimately does damage the composite. At 10 nanometers in diameter, carbon nanotubes are nearly a million times smaller than carbon fibers and have 1,000 times more surface area, enabling a better bond with the resin matrix. This development has positive implications for aircraft structural performance and strengthens confidence in CFRP’s damage tolerance.
Flights of fantasy when it comes to composites technology? You could say that!
Persevere to succeed
Ever since carbon fibers found increasing use in aerospace and industrial applications, there is a continuous quest to recycle CFRP composites, considering the high cost of the reinforcement. The most recent method to recycle nearly 100% of the fiber involves soaking the composites in an alcohol solvent that slowly dissolves the epoxy resin. Once dissolved, the carbon fiber and epoxy can be separated and used in new applications [Plastics Today]. This technique was successfully tested with vitrimer epoxies. Vitrimers are derived from thermosets and consist of molecular covalent networks and can flow like viscoelastic liquids at high temperatures. They contain dynamic bonds that can alternate their structure without losing network integrity under certain conditions. Alcohol has small molecules to take part in the network of alternating reactions that effectively dissolve the vitrimer.
Another technique that has potential success to commercially recycle carbon fiber from CFRP composites – expect more in the not so foreseeable future.
A step ahead in the learning curve
When it comes to composites use for CNG storage, manufacturers always come up with technologies that are one up on their earlier developments. Luxfer has launched it’s second generation CFRP cylinders for Alternate Fuel (AF) containment. The cylinders provide a 9% volume increase of CNG in terms of diesel gas equivalent (DGE) and a 15% weight savings compared to their earlier version [NGV Journal]. When compared to conventional competitive hybrid carbon-glass fiber cylinders, the DGE volume improvement reportedly increases to 14% and the weight saving grows to 30%. The latest design features a new polymer liner and patented boss design that provide the highest level of liner performance and gas retention. Feedback from customers in the refuse truck, class-8 heavy-duty truck and medium-duty truck sectors have been positive thus far.
The world’s first Euro 6 double-deck natural gas-powered bus is undergoing field tests ahead of delivery to the British market later this year. While the CFRP fuel tanks for single-deck buses were placed on the roof of the vehicle, space constraints in the double-deck buses necessitated positioning majority of the CNG tanks in a new compartment behind the upper passenger area. In addition to being quieter than the diesel models, the natural gas bus will (expectedly) produce much lower carbon emissions [NGV Journal].
The UK continues to be in the forefront when it comes to relentlessly pursuing ways and means of reducing carbon footprint.
Cycle time reduction is a key aspect that is linked to the fortunes of increased composites usage in automobiles. Epoxy resin producers have successfully developed fast-curing resins in recent times. Polyurethane (PU) resin producers have not been far behind. The composite front transverse springs for the Mercedes Benz NCV 3 Sprinter uses dry glass fiber textile preforms and PU resin molded by RTM with benefits of cycle time (compared to epoxy), whilst simultaneously achieving a 65% weight reduction over steel, in addition to superior fatigue resistance and metal insert reduction [Plastics News Europe].
Drill, drill, drill!
The success of shale gas production by fracking in the U.S. is legion. It has virtually turned the oil industry supply scenario on its head and the U.S. is been dubbed a swing producer. Earlier this month, the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) released the International Energy Outlook 2016 (IEO 2016) and Annual Energy Outlook 2016 (AEO 2016) that shows significant increase in shale gas production through 2040. Per the report, shale gas production increased from 10 billion cu ft per day (Bcf/d) in 2010 to 42 Bcf/d in 2015. The report predicts that production will continue to increase to 168 Bcf/d by 2040 accounting for 30% of global natural gas production [Daily Energy Insider]. Six countries comprising the U.S., Canada, China, Argentina, Mexico and Algeria are expected to account for 70% of global shale production by 2040. This naturally begs the question of how much new capacity of propylene plants will be set up via the propane dehydrogenation route to compensate for surplus ethylene (and hence polyethylene) and deficient propylene (and hence polypropylene)? After all, reinforced polypropylene continues to be in great demand for a variety of industrial applications.
Points to ponder and plan for the future.
Polybenzoxazine is a new polymer that exhibits some similar properties to polytetrafluoroethylene (popularly known as Teflon). It offers unusual properties that one would not find in other thermosets. The monomer is reportedly synthesized from phenol, formaldehyde and a primary amine. The resin offers some huge benefits such as near-zero volumetric changes or expansion, shrinkage and di-electric constant better than epoxy, very high modulus and a surface similar to Teflon, sans fluorocarbons [Plastics&Rubber Weekly]. The resin has excellent thermal stability and flexural strength, apart from being non-igniting and is considered a good bet for aerospace applications.
A new commercially viable polymer matrix on the horizon? Apparently so.
Space propulsion ahoy!
Despite satellite launch costs falling like ninepins over the years, weight savings have always been welcome with open arms for this application. CFRP composites have been successfully used for satellite components as they enable almost 50% weight saving compared to steel and more than 30% compared to aluminum alloy. Low outgassing cyanate ester thermosets are generally used as the matrix in CFRP composites for satellite components [Plastics Today]. Mitsubishi Electric is doubling its satellite component production in Japan which is expected to be on stream by October 2017. It is likely to use it’s proven proprietary VARTM technology.
The euphoria in the automotive sector at the beginning of the year has waned in this quarter due to a combination of factors – tepid business climate, uncertainty (think oil!), slowing U.S. economy and the Brexit fallout. It was a mixed bag for vehicle auto sales in July. The orders for Boeing’s Dreamliner and Airbus AB350 have not exactly been on fire recently for a variety of reasons – the order books through 2021 and beyond are full though, thanks to the backlog.
Optimism – the elixir
The global economy is predicted to perk up in 2017 and take wings from 2018. Remaining optimistic is the elixir of life. After all, what goes down must come up – as has oft been proven.
The composites industry ploughs on, though not a lonely furrow!
Till the next post,
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