Welcome to another post on developments in polymeric composites and interrelated news on the global economy.
As we approach the end of H1 2015, it has obviously been a roller coaster ride thus far.
Dare to predict?
The oil market wears the look of a burst bubble as also base metals, with copper retracting by more than 12%. Precious metals such as platinum have fared no better (much to the glee of glass fiber producers). Oil price swings (a case of politics playing spoilsport?) continue to confound experts and even crystal ball gazing at this juncture would be dismissed by many as a futile exercise. Naysayers continue to have a field day.
Uncertainties aside, it is important for the show to go on. Right?
Road to recovery
In early June, the Organization for Co-operation and Economic Development (OECD) cut its global economic forecast for this year to 3.1%, but says it expects lower oil prices to ensure a gradual recovery even if weak investment remains a worry [International Business Times]. Global GDP is now projected to grow at 3.8% in 2016 with China’s heady GDP expansion rate of recent years tapering to 6.8% in 2015 and 6.7% in 2016 from 7.4% in 2014. Credit Suisse expects the U.S. GDP to grow at 2.2% in 2015. The Japanese economy is expected to grow at 0.7% this year (better than the flat growth of 2014), buoyed by strong foreign demand for its goods [Business Insider]. Cheap oil has had a dramatic effect on European consumer spending in 2015. The combination of savings from cheaper fuel, a more functional financial system, monetary easing and a cheaper euro is expected to keep the region’s economic trajectory on course in H2 2015.
The fact remains that the global economy is on the mend and growth, though tepid, is being observed in most regions. Oil price continues to wreak havoc, but we are slowly getting used to taking it in our stride.
Trade shows – one too many?
The number of global trade shows in composites has witnessed a major jump in recent times. Visitors continue to stream in at most shows that hold relevant technical conference sessions/tutorials in tandem. The quest for knowledge in keeping abreast of the latest developments, remains unabated. Organizations revel in showcasing their latest wares, while extolling the numerous benefits that accrue through use of their raw material(s), machinery, simulation software and/or processing techniques for novel applications backed by sane analysis of the commercial viability through Life Cycle Assessment. One never ceases to be amazed by the plethora of offerings at these trade shows.
For sure, it augurs well for the composites industry at large.
Total rethink in designing
Demand for new cars and light trucks in the U.S. in May was more robust than anticipated. At 1.63 million, total sales was more than the 1.59 million units projected [J.D. Power]. The auto industry’s focus on lightweighting to boost fuel efficiency is nothing new. This has resulted in quite a bit of aerospace technology creeping into products with manufacturers employing a healthy mix of carbon fiber, glass fiber, aluminum, magnesium and high-strength steels. Ford recently showed how carbon fiber body panels enabled creation of “negative space” – open spaces through the body of the 600HP-GT vehicle to enable air to flow through it rather than around it [Design News]. The full carbon fiber driver/passenger cell has aluminum front and rear subframes with structural carbon fiber body panels. A concept car called the Fusion MMLV (multi-material lightweight vehicle) uses numerous carbon fiber and aluminum parts that would normally be made in steel. This includes carbon fiber brake rotors and seat frames, glass fiber epoxy front springs, carbon fiber wheels. Enough weight was taken out that resulted in an engine downsize from 1.6 liters to 1 liter. The focus is obviously not just on weight savings, but a reduction in rotating mass.
When the lightweighting concept extends to revolutionary approaches in basic design, the results can be phenomenal. In fact, this approach, in recent times, has begun to gain ground progressively.
Offshore blowing away onshore
Renewable energy in general and wind energy in particular is growing by leaps and bounds. A record 4.2GW of offshore wind turbines is anticipated to be installed in 2015, per a recent Bloomberg New Energy Finance report. This is double the 2.1 GW installed in 2013, with Germany expected to lead installations in coastal waters with more than 2.3 GW this year, followed by 1 GW in the UK [Bloomberg Business]. Offshore wind power is increasing year-on-year and expected to reach 48GW by 2020, growing at a compound annual rate of 53% and aided, in part, by dipping technology costs. The Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) is now at around $179/MWh – down from $202 in H2 2014, in part due to currency fluctuations. Onshore wind power costs about $85/MWh. Siemens has recently come out with interesting stats. An offshore wind farm with 80 turbines produces 53 million MWh of electricity during its intended 25-year service life. It emits 7 grams CO2/KWh. In comparison, energy from fossil sources burdens the climate with an average of 865 grams/KWh. In other words, a wind farm saves 45 million tons of CO2 during its entire service life. This will result in continued increase in demand for industrial grade carbon fiber and, to a certain extent, glass fiber. Larger blades in offshore wind turbines entail lower weight and, consequently, a preference for carbon fiber, due to the density factor.
Considering the spate of expansions on the anvil by existing carbon fiber producers and new entrants waiting in the wings, there should be no dearth in availability of the reinforcement.
CFRP steps in…and how!
The extensive use of carbon fiber composites in the Boeing 787 and Airbus 350/380 models has prompted identification of more components to replace metals in aircraft applications. A proprietary fusion-core technology features the development of a carbon fiber reinforced PEEK fuel housing that allows for undercuts in injection molding. The end result – a 30% cost saving and 50% weight saving in the production of the complex fuel housings for the global aircraft industry [Plastics Today]. The CFRP composite offers superior fatigue performance and enhanced manufacturing speeds vis-a-vis traditional aluminum for this application and also meets all engineering requirements including stiffness, effective flame, smoke and toxicity performance (FST) and resistance to aggressive chemicals, including jet fuel and hydraulic fluids. Conventional injection molding technology cannot be used for the complex inner geometry of the fuel housings – this necessitated utilizing a near net-shape process for the fusible core that allows for 80% time saving versus machined parts. Secondary treatments for corrosion protection such as anodizing, are eliminated; lead times are reduced by 50%.
The ability to process pre-impregnated unidirectional (UD) fabrics/tapes made from high performance thermoplastics such as PPS and PEEK to ensure high levels of process control has reportedly resulted in the successful development of a high-temperature contact heating table that can achieve processing temperatures of up to 425°C. UD tapes are placed precisely on a moving table in layers and spot-welded using ultrasound [Plastics Today]. The orientation of the tape and the fibers can be set in variable ways by rotating the table and adjusted optimally to any load. The fabrics are then processed further and consolidated in a two-step heat transfer press process. The contact heating table heats up the fabrics before they are pressed to make laminates with the best quality and reproduciblity. Individual layers are bonded without air pockets and temperature distribution ensures homogeneity [Fraunhofer]. The potential of this process in aerospace and automotive sectors is significant.
Viable option in GFRP
The powertrain system that includes the engine accounts for a large proportion of the weight of an automobile. The recent development of the cylinder block (engine component) in glass fiber reinforced phenolic composite in lieu of traditional aluminum has been encouraging with a weight reduction of 20% and comparable costs. To ensure a robust engine design, metal inserts were used to strengthen wear resistance in areas subject to high thermal and mechanical loads, such as the cylinder liner [Plastics Today]. The geometry of the parts was also modified to ensure that the composite is exposed to as little heat as possible. Sufficient rigidity, resistance to oil, gasoline, glycol & cooling water and good adherence to metal inserts were some of the criteria that enabled zeroing in on phenolic GFRP with 55% fiber loading. Use of carbon fiber was also a technically feasible, though not an economical option. Test runs on the new engine showed lower running noise, lesser heat radiation to the environment and proven reduction in elimination of numerous finishing operations associated with conventional metal engines.
A total relook at overall component design rather than mere material substitution in recent developments, appears to be the hallmark of new applications in composites in the aerospace and automotive sectors.
Natural gas to the fore
The shale gas revolution in the U.S. has resulted in an abundance of natural gas. Vehicles being powered by natural gas are on the increase. Consequently, the demand for CNG composite tanks is growing and more fueling stations are being commissioned to factor this upsurge. Momentum Fuel Technologies has debuted a CNG fuel system solution for Class 6 to Class 8 trucks that features lightweight glass fiber composite using 3M nanoparticle-enhanced matrix resin technology. The tanks display 6% increase in burst strength, 25% weight reduction and 27% higher weight/volume efficiency compared to tanks made with conventional resin [Plastics Today]. Adoption rates for U.S. Class 8 NG-powered commercial vehicles is poised to grow from 4% in 2014 to 10% in 2018 and 23% in 2020. A five-fold growth in NG vehicles in the next five years is the forecast.
As natural gas is a low-carbon, clean burning fuel, the upside is a significant reduction in hydrocarbon, carbon monoxide, oxides of nitrogen and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Bio-plastics: a quantum leap
The focus on green energy, lower VOC and reduced GHG continues at a frenetic pace globally. Replacement of traditional polymer building blocks with bio-based materials is on the rise. According to a 2015 published report, bio-based production capacity is projected to triple from 5.1 million metric tons in 2013 (2% of total polymer production) to 17 million metric tons (4% of total polymer production) in 2020 at a CAGR of almost 20%. Bio-based drop-ins led by bio-PET (from plant-based materials) and new polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PA) will show fastest rates of market growth. Bio-based polyurethanes (PU) are also showing impressive growth. Most investments in new bio-based polymers is expected to take place in Asia because of better access to feedstock (such as sugarcane) and a favorable political framework [Plastics Today]. This is one more stab at the negative environmental effects of using fossil fuels.
Bio-based resins for the composites industry have already been around for several years, with leading resin producers offering a range of “green resins”. The list, no doubt, is growing.
Ever since the Toyota Mirai was launched as the first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell car (using CFRP tanks to store the hydrogen), the battle of zero-emissions has raged between EVs and HFCVs. As matters currently stand, EVs need recharging of batteries after 150 -200 kms whereas HFCVs could be driven 300 kms before needing to fill up again. In essence, the range is almost twice with HFCVs. Though the infrastructure to support HFCVs is patchy at present, it can change over time. Recall how the world scoffed at the first-generation Prius in 1997 – the rest is history [BBC News]. Hydrogen is the most abundant available element in the universe [Toyota] – its potential is huge as a clean energy source. The bottom line is that both EVs and HFCVs will use composites to a great extent – that’s what matters in the final analysis.
Both types of vehicles can co-exist with their USPs and are poised to take off in a big way by the end of the decade. Composites will continue to be the ultimate beneficiary.
Per latest stats from BP, the U.S. has dethroned Russia as the world’s largest producer of combined hydrocarbons – oil and natural gas. This is a clear demonstration of the seismic shifts in the world energy landscape emanating from America’s shale fields [Yahoo Finance].
Another instance of uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and that the numero uno status in any sphere is never a given?
Till the next post,