World Carbon Fiber Market

The carbon fiber market has grown rapidly since 2010, reaching over 100,000 tons in 2019 from 40,000 tons. During this period, figures were seen in the range of 10 to 12% per year with a smooth and uninterrupted growth curve. However, with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the world of carbon fiber has experienced a major transformation in almost one day.

In 2020, the demand for carbon fiber worldwide was approximately 105,000 tons, with only 1% increase compared to 2019. Only 1% growth is expected in 2021. (See Figure 1.) To understand this flattening in the demand curve, we need to take a closer look at how COVID-19 has changed the carbon fiber world.

The driving force of growth in the carbon fiber market was the developments in a number of fields such as aviation and space, wind energy, sports products, marine, automotive and pressure vessels. Until 2020, the growth rate in all these segments of the market and across the industry was relatively stable.

Figure 1: Carbon Fiber Demand in Tonnes

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When countries closed their borders at the beginning of 2020, international flights were cut off, and in an environment where aircraft manufacturers slowed down their production, the carbon fiber industry lost its impetus overnight. While the use of carbon fiber in aviation and space applications constituted more than 20% of the overall volume of the industry, this rate was at the level of 40% in terms of value. The slowdown in commercial aviation has dealt a severe blow to the carbon fiber industry, and it will take years to recover and return to the pre-COVID point.

Although the news from the aviation and space industry is not very good, it cannot be said that 2020 is a complete disaster. It should be noted that some markets have made strong growth in a period where we learned not to go out, to work from home, and to take our holidays close to home. While the demand for sports equipment increased from 30% to 40% in 2020, wind power plant constructions continued as planned and increased by 20% compared to the previous year.

Looking at the carbon fiber market on the basis of end use in 2020, the following figures emerge:

• Wind energy - 23%

• Aviation and space - 20%

• Sports equipment (including marine) - 12%

• Automotive - 10%

• Pressure vessels - 10%

• Use in injection molded plastics and other short fiber applications - 8%

• Construction and infrastructure - 8%

• Other segments of the market - 9%

As in the pre-COVID era, all market segments of carbon fiber have great growth potential as new applications and programs are implemented. There is no change in the long-term megatrends that made carbon fiber attractive even before COVID-19. The advantages offered by carbon fiber, namely hardness, high strength performance compared to its weight, corrosion resistance, electrical conductivity and many more are still valid today. It is necessary to demonstrate the technical and economic advantages of carbon fiber and carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) parts for growth to occur.

At the point we have reached, it is seen that the demand for carbon fiber is triggered by certain sectors and practices, and these are affected by COVID in various ways. Sectors such as aviation and space with shrinkage caused the carbon fiber industry to follow a relatively stagnant course in 2020 and not to expect much growth in 2021.

However, it should be said that the picture is more positive in the long run. It would not be exaggerated to expect a return to high growth rates compared to the previous year once again in the carbon fiber industry within a couple of years.

Considering the carbon fiber production capacity of the sector, it is seen that the capacity of the leading producers is sufficient to meet the demand in the medium term with 160,000 tons. Moreover, it is known that many manufacturers are planning to increase their capacities by establishing new factories in order to meet the increasing demand in the future.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the carbon fiber industry is still in the early stages of its development. It is well known that hand-produced aircraft have one to two production volumes per day. The volumes of other applications that do not use automation are at similar levels. Cars, on the other hand, are subject to mass production, and it's no surprise to see a car roll off the production line every minute. Today, carbon fiber is still mostly used in low volume applications. He still has not proven himself clearly in "mass production" applications. Of course, this will come the time. But we don't know when it will happen.

In summary, although COVID has hit the carbon fiber industry, the effects will be temporary. Despite what happened in this extraordinary year, the future in terms of carbon fiber is promising, and developments in the next year or two are eagerly awaited.

Note: This article has been translated into Turkish from the Winter 2021 issue of the Composites Manufacturing Magazine and the Managing Director of CarbConsult GmbH, Mr. Daniel Pnchler. 

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