Opportunities for uses of carbon fiber are exceeding availability once again.
In some cases, several end users said, manufacturers stifle growth by selling carbon fiber to customers at current volumes but refuse orders for more.
``There is a critical shortage of carbon fiber in the world, and we are experiencing it,'' said William Dick, president of Lincoln Composites Inc., a maker of high-pressure vessels in Lincoln, Neb.
Edward Fyfe, president of Fyfe Co. LLC of San Diego, agreed: ``We need another 20,000 pounds of carbon fiber monthly.'' Fyfe's firm uses advanced composite systems for strengthening and repairing structures.
``Perhaps people need to self-source to get a carbon supply [and] eliminate uncertainty'' about obtaining fiber, Dick said.
Dick, Fyfe and other end users troubled by the carbon-fiber supply situation spoke at Global Outlook for Carbon Fiber 2005, held Oct. 11-13 in San Diego.
Industry guru Jon Devault said there were carbon-fiber shortages in 1989, 1997 and, the current one, which started in 2004. ``The first two shortages went away quickly,'' he said. ``The third shortage may not.''
The carbon-fiber industry needs an independent trade group to collect statistical data, said Devault, president of Devault and Associates Inc. of Pinehurst, N.C.
An earlier group, the Suppliers of Advanced Composite Materials Association, focused mainly on preimpregnated-materials makers, Devault said. Company consolidations in the industry eroded the association's base and led to its demise in mid-2000.
The lack of aggressive expansion may exacerbate what is already a tight situation in carbon fiber supplies. Fred Hajduk, senior consultant with SRI Consulting of Menlo Park, Calif., projects global demand of 78.3 million pounds by 2009, with the shortfall amounting to 8.6 million pounds. Hajduk estimated 2004 consumption at 48.2 million pounds.
Chuck Segal, managing director of manufacturer and distributor Omnia LLC of Raleigh, N.C., discussed the industrial market for carbon fiber.
Segal projected that annual global industrial-market demand for polyacrylonitrile-based carbon fiber will rise to 48.4 million pounds in 2010-11, from about 26.4 million pounds in 2005-06.
He expects the industrial-market portion of small-tow through 24,000-filament carbon fiber to increase in five years to 35.2 million pounds, from 17.6 million pounds now. Annual industrial-market demand for larger-tow fiber will be about 13.2 million pounds in five years, up from 8.8 million pounds, he said.
Growth in the structural market will include energy-related wind blades, flywheels, oil drill pipes and platforms, pressure vessels and fuel cells, automotive-related drive shafts and molded components and servo-mechanical-related robotic arms and weaving devices. He also expects growth in the electrical market for static and electromagnetic-interference applications.
In the report ``High Performance Structural Fibers for Advanced Polymer-Matrix Composites'' for the National Academies, advisers to the Defense Department recommended that the agency's prime contractors ``review quality and testing requirements and reduce [them] where possible,'' according to Devault, one of the advisers.
The report called for two qualified sources on major Defense Department programs.
Tighter tolerances in prepreg composite materials would reduce costs of manufacturing military aircraft structures, the report said. And greater investment would ``improve dimensional tolerance and reduce processing variability.''
Carbon-epoxy composites account for more than 350 parts on the F-22 Raptor and represent 25 percent of the structural weight, according to the report. The developmental Joint Strike Fighter will be between 25-30 percent composite by weight.
The report said 2004 worldwide nameplate capacity of special acrylic fiber- and textile precursor-based carbon fibers was expected to be more than 70 million pounds, with utilization expected to be at more than 40 million pounds and increasing. ``Historically, utilization rates are low'' at around 65 percent, Devault said.
Globally, glass fiber constitutes a much larger segment than advanced polymer-matrix composites, said Steve Loud, president of Composites Worldwide Inc. in Solana Beach, Calif.
For all applications and markets, an estimated 12.1 billion pounds of composites, worth $55 billion to $60 billion, are consumed annually, along with 84.7 million pounds in advanced composites, including those containing carbon, aromatic polyamide, S-glass and other fibers, Loud said.
The aerospace segment is growing faster with the requirements for the Airbus SAS superjumbo A380, which is projected to reach commercial service in 2006, and two upcoming midsize wide-body jets: Boeing's 787, entering the market in 2008, and the Airbus A350, targeted for service in 2010.
Loud said North America holds an estimated 31 percent of the global market for fiber-reinforced plastics. The Asia-Pacific region has 28 percent, and Western Europe, 25 percent, he said.
Loud identified the industry's need to support opportunities where carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics can be used ``in development and demonstration programs offering sufficient capacity and acceptable CF price.''
Carbon-fiber market opportunities present a very narrow window, said Leonard Poveromo, Northrop Grumman Corp.'s director of technology development in Bethpage, N.Y.
``If we do not grab them, they are never going to come back again.''