Published June 2016
Carbon fibers are used primarily as reinforcing agents in high-performance composites with synthetic resin matrices such as epoxies, polyimides, vinyl esters, phenolics, and certain thermoplastics. Small quantities of carbon fiber are consumed in composites with carbon matrices; in addition, developmental work is being performed with metal, ceramic, and glass matrices. The carbon fiber serves to provide the strength and stiffness of the composite, while the matrix material maintains fiber alignment and transfers structural load among the fibers. Compared with conventional construction materials such as aluminum or steel, carbon fiber composites have some highly desirable properties. Structural members made from these composites can be designed to have twice the strength and more than twice the fatigue resistance of steel; also, they can be twice as stiff as aluminum at half the weight.
Major advances in technology and processing have dramatically expanded the demand for high-performance carbon fibers. The introduction of higher-volume and lower-cost fibers and gains in productivity have reduced the manufacturing costs of carbon fibers. Since cost is a major factor affecting demand, continued improvements in performance coupled with increased availability are expected to support growing consumption in all regions and applications.
The following pie chart shows world consumption of carbon fibers:
Industrial applications will remain the largest world market, helped by significant growth in several markets, such as pressure vessels, wind turbine blades, and automotive uses. Consumption of carbon fibers in industrial applications is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of 8.8% during 2015–20.
Carbon fiber use has continued to grow strongly as a result of the increasing use of carbon fiber composites in the production of aircraft as well as the increasing demand in industrial applications. In 2011–12, aircraft/aerospace applications surpassed sporting goods/recreation as the second-largest market for carbon fibers.
Growth for carbon fibers in aircraft/aerospace is dependent on commercial aircraft orders and government spending. The main drivers for increased commercial air travel include population growth, urbanization, and improving living standards. Additionally, the replacement of aging and less-fuel-efficient passenger aircraft also impacts commercial aircraft orders. Consumption of carbon fibers in aircraft/aerospace applications is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of 9% during 2015–20.
Asia accounted for 76% of the world consumption of carbon fibers in sporting goods/recreation in 2015; by 2020, the region will account for approximately 80%. Growth in demand for carbon fibers in sporting goods/recreation markets is dependent largely on discretionary spending and participation rates in indoor and outdoor sports and recreational activities. Consumption of carbon fibers in sporting goods and recreation is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of 6.5% during 2015–20.
North America (essentially the United States) and Western Europe are the largest markets for carbon fibers, accounting for nearly 58% of world consumption in 2015. These two regions are the largest-volume consumers of carbon fibers in both aircraft/aerospace and industrial applications, accounting for 83% and 60%, respectively, of world consumption in 2015.
China is expected to experience strong growth of 10–11% annually for carbon fiber consumption. Government plans to use carbon fibers and composites in the near future will drive this growth. For example, the government is encouraging wind farmers to build new capacity, thus increasing carbon fiber demand for wind turbine blades.
World consumption of carbon fibers is forecast to grow at an average annual rate of about 8.5% during 2015–20. Demand growth in both aircraft/aerospace and industrial/wind/automotive markets is expected to be significant.