Advancements in Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer Matrix Composites: History, Applications, and Future Innovations

Significance 

Due to the unique high specific strength and stiffness of carbon fiber reinforced polymer composite matrix (CFRP) composites have been recognized as a very desirable material. For over 50 years, the use of these composites has been widespread in a range of sectors including aeronautics, automotive, wind energy and more. The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the demand for carbon fibers and composites, particularly in the aerospace and sports industries. However, the wind energy sector experienced a growing demand for carbon fiber reinforced polymer matrix composites, while industries like automotive and construction remained relatively unaffected. This highlights the diverse range of applications where CFRP composites can be utilized.

To gain a comprehensive understanding of carbon fiber composites, it is crucial to delve into their creation, historical background, and various applications. Additionally, exploring new materials, production methods, and addressing challenges related to recycling and reusing are essential aspects of further advancing CFRP technology.

In a recent paper published in the peer-reviewed Journal Composites Part B, Dr. Jin Zhang from the University of New South Wales, Dr. Gang Lin from ATA Carbon Fibre Technology Guangzhou Co. Ltd, Professor Uday Vaidya from the University of Tennessee, and Professor Hao Wang from the University of Southern Queensland provided an in-depth review of the history, development, and applications of carbon fibers and carbon fiber composites.

The authors provided a concise historical overview, starting from the accidental discovery of carbon fibers during experiments in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequent efforts focused on increasing their carbon content, leading to Toray Industries’ interest in polyacrylonitrile (PAN) carbon fiber technology and the formation of business partnerships. The 1970s witnessed the production of carbon fiber products for sports equipment, which contributed to the growth of the carbon fiber composites industry. In the 1980s, carbon fibers found their way into aircraft manufacturing, with increased production capacities. The 1990s marked a significant rise in the use of carbon fiber composites in aerospace applications. At the beginning of the 21st century, Boeing and Airbus launched programs showcasing the advantages of carbon fiber in commercial aircraft, further propelling its utilization across various industries, including wind energy and automotive.

The authors also provided insights into the global development and production of carbon fiber reinforced polymer matrix composites. Since 2014, the demand for these composites has consistently increased, reaching approximately 181 kt in 2021 and projected to reach 281 kt by 2025. While the aerospace industry experienced a decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the wind energy industry accounted for a significant portion of consumption. The sports and leisure market remained stable, and the automotive industry showed an upward trend in the utilization of CFRP composites. China surpassed the United States in terms of consumption, while Europe also played a significant role. Filament winding and pultrusion emerged as dominant manufacturing techniques, and top global producers of carbon fiber included Toray, SGL, Mitsubishi Liyang, Toho Tenax, and Hexcel.

The aerospace, wind energy, automotive, high-pressure gas storage, and recreation industries extensively utilize CFRP composites. These composites offer high strength-to-weight and stiffness-to-weight ratios, resulting in enhanced performance and reduced weight. Technological advancements and cost reductions have expanded the range of carbon fiber applications, including aircraft structures, wind turbine blades, lightweight vehicles, pressure vessels, and sports equipment. The efficiency, emission reduction capabilities, durability, and sustainability benefits of CFRP composites continue to drive their increasing demand.

The authors also emphasized the significance of novel developments in carbon fiber composites. The use of large tow PAN fibers, which are more cost-effective than conventional PAN precursor fibers, enables the production of affordable carbon fibers. However, the lower purity of these fibers requires mechanical and radiation treatments to enhance their thermal behavior and mechanical properties. Additionally, thermoplastic matrices are gaining popularity in carbon fiber composites due to their ease of processing, recyclability, and ability to produce lightweight and impact-resistant components. Surface treatments are employed to improve the interfacial bonding between carbon fibers and thermoplastic matrices. Additive manufacturing techniques, such as fused filament fabrication, now enable the production of continuous carbon fiber reinforced thermoplastic matrix composites. Out-of-autoclave processes, including liquid molding and automated dry fiber placement, are being developed to reduce manufacturing costs and overcome size limitations. These advancements result in improved part quality, higher fiber volume fraction, and increased production rates.

Dr. Jin Zhang and colleagues also highlighted the importance of recycling and reusing carbon fiber composites to address the growing amount of waste generated during manufacturing and after end-of-life. Pyrolysis has emerged as an industrially viable method for reprocessing CFRP composites, allowing for the recovery of long carbon fibers and hydrocarbon streams. Several companies around the world have implemented pyrolysis recycling capabilities to tackle the issue of CFRP waste in the composite industry supply chain.

In conclusion, carbon fiber reinforced polymer matrix composites possess outstanding properties such as high strength, high rigidity, low density, and ease of part integration making them highly valuable in industries such as aerospace, automotive, wind energy, and more. Despite the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for these composites continues to rise, driven by advancements in materials, production methods, and their positive environmental impact. The ongoing development of CFRP technology, including new materials, manufacturing processes, and recycling methods, holds immense promise for further expanding the applications and benefits of carbon fiber composites in various industries.

Reference

Jin Zhang, Gang Lin, Uday Vaidya, Hao Wang. Past, present and future prospective of global carbon fibre composite developments and applications. Composites Part B, Volume 250,  2023, 110463.

Go To Composites Part B

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