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The past, present and future outlook of the development and application of global carbon fiber composites

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 The past, present and future outlook of the development and application of global carbon fiber composites

Carbon fiber reinforced polymer matrix composite (CFRP), as a highly engineered material, has high specific modulus and high specific strength. They are ideal for applications where high strength and stiffness, low weight, and excellent fatigue characteristics are critical requirements. Compared to aluminum and steel, the specific strength of carbon fiber is about ten times higher (depending on the fiber used). Over the past five decades, CFRP has been successfully applied to the aerospace, automotive, rail transportation, Marine and wind energy industries. The global compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of CFRP over the past two decades has been approximately 12.5%. In the aerospace sector, two recent long-range aircraft, the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, make extensive use of CFRP in the fuselage structure, accounting for more than 50 percent of the weight. For automotive structures, such as body panels, roof and floor components, their need for stiffness gives carbon fiber the advantage of reducing vehicle mass and improving performance. In wind turbine applications, carbon fiber has a higher specific modulus than E-glass fiber, resulting in longer blades, slimmer designs and superior aerodynamic performance. With the expansion of lightweight fuel storage, composite pressure vessels are growing rapidly.

Increasingly stringent global carbon dioxide (CO2) emission standards and current carbon-neutral regulations will have a profound impact on the carbon fiber composites industry. Lightweight composites in the field of renewable energy, such as wind, photovoltaic or hydrogen energy, have a wide range of requirements in terms of protection, storage, transportation and use.

This paper comprehensively reviews the history of carbon fiber and carbon fiber composite materials, the development and production status of global CFRP, and the development trend of CFRP in aerospace, wind turbines, automobiles, pressure vessels, sports and leisure, construction and other fields. The significance of the development of new carbon fiber composites is discussed in terms of emerging materials (such as large filament carbon fiber and thermoplastic matrix), manufacturing processes (such as cost-effective off-autoclave manufacturing and liquid molding aimed at reducing costs and increasing yields), and the urgent needs and challenges of composite recycling and reuse.

History of carbon fiber and carbon fiber composites

Early stage of development

The early development of carbon fiber and carbon fiber composites covered the 50s and 60s. Carbon fiber has a high carbon content and a diameter in the range of 5-10 μm. The advantages of carbon fiber include high specific strength, high specific modulus, high chemical and heat resistance, and low thermal expansion. In 1958, Roger Bacon of Union Carbide in the United States accidentally produced carbon fiber when he heated rayon in argon and experimentally measured the triple point of carbon. In 1960, Richard Millington of H.I.Thompson Fiber Glass Company (USA) developed a method for increasing the carbon content in rayon based fibers to 99wt% and applied for a patent (US Patent No. 3,294,489). Around the same time, researchers in Japan and the United Kingdom were developing carbon fibers using polyacrylonitrile (PAN) instead of rayon. PAN is a synthetic semi-crystalline organic polymer resin with a straight chain C3H3N. In 1959, Akio Shindo of the Osaka Institute of Engineering Technology in Japan successfully produced carbon fiber with a carbon content of -55wt% using a cost-effective production method. Its modulus is about three times that of rayon based carbon fiber. PAN processes are becoming more economical due to higher carbon yield and simpler manufacturing processes. Toray Industries (Japan) became interested in PAN carbon fiber technology in 1961 and established pilot production in 1964. Later in 1970, Toray signed a license agreement with the Institute for the PAN process. W.att, L.N.Plillips and W.Johnson Son of the Royal Aircraft Company (RAE, UK) also patented a carbon fiber manufacturing process using PAN fibers in 1963. This manufacturing process creates carbon fiber products that are stronger than previous processes. Subsequently, the UK National Research and Development Corporation granted licenses for the process to Rolls-Royce, Morganite and Courtaulds. Rolls-Royce began using carbon fiber to produce jet engine components at that time and entered the U.S. market with the RB-211 aero engine, which features carbon fiber composite compressor blades. Unfortunately, bird strikes proved to be a major weakness in the compressor blades, which led to a major setback for Rolls-Royce. Eventually, Rolls-Royce sold their carbon fiber factory. In the 1960s, Japanese and British companies led the development of laboratory technologies for carbon fiber production. Representative companies include Japan's Osaka Institute of Technology, Tokai Carbon, Japan Carbon, Toray, Mitsubishi, Tobo, etc., the British Royal Aircraft Company, the Royal Atomic Energy Society, Courtaulds, Rolls-Royce, etc., while DuPont, Union Carbide and other American companies are testing acrylic or viscose based carbon fiber products. Therefore, the development of PAN based carbon fiber in the United States is later than that in Japan and the United Kingdom.

The beginning of the carbon fiber composite industry

The beginning of the carbon fiber composite industry was between the 70's and 80's. In 1970, Toray Industries of Japan and Union Carbide of the United States established a joint technology venture that led to the maturity of the production of PAN-based carbon fibers, which dominates the global market today. In the development of the carbon fiber manufacturing process, there has been close cooperation between the UK, the US and Japan. In 1971, Toray established a production capacity of 12 tons of carbon fiber (the largest in the world at the time) and began production of Torayca®300 (T300). In 1972, Toray introduced its first commercial line of carbon fiber composite products - fishing rods. These rods reduce the weight of existing products by about 50% and are relatively more expensive. In 1972, Hercules in the United States obtained carbonization technology from RAE and adopted the precursor of Courtaulds. Subsequently, American and Japanese companies produced carbon fiber golf clubs, tennis rackets and bicycles, whose performance was highly valued in the market. However, CFRP was primarily used for sports and leisure at the time. 1975 marked a turning point since the 1973 oil crisis, when there was an urgent need to reduce airframe weight to reduce fuel consumption. Aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus have focused on using carbon fiber-reinforced plastics to create secondary aircraft structures that do not compromise flight safety. In 1980, Boeing proposed carbon fiber requirements for commercial aircraft manufacturing. In 1982, they began using the T300 on the Boeing 757, Boeing 767, and the Space Shuttle. CFRP has found its way into engineering applications for aerospace structures, including military and civil aircraft. The mass production of CFRP was achieved in the manufacture of military aircraft.

The 1980s witnessed the industrialization of carbon fiber production, and the serialization and application of carbon fiber made major breakthroughs. With a single line production capacity of 1,000 tons per year, Toray has basically completed the majority of its existing product range, namely the T300 in the initial stage, the T800 and T1000 in the middle stage, and the M60J in the later stage. The tensile properties of Torayca® carbon fibers are shown in Table 1. With the widespread use of CFRP in aircraft components, cumulative production of Torayca® carbon fibers exceeded 100,000 tons by 1988. At the same time, the UK made several technology transfers, first to the US and then to China, India, Russia and Brazil. As a result of technology transfer between the United States, Japan and the United Kingdom, industrial carbon fiber manufacturer Zoltek was launched in the United States in 1988. Formosa of Taiwan began technical cooperation with Hitco of the United States.

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