When Solar Impulse touched down in Abu Dhabi after its round-the-globe voyage last July, it was hailed as a triumph of human daring and solar power technology. But very few realized that Solar Impulse was a success because of its weight. The one-person aircraft was able to make its journey because it was built from advanced composites that are starting to slowly but surely displace steel and aluminum in the aerospace industry. From novelty, it is starting to become a growing trend.

Composites such as carbon fiber reinforced plastic can be tailored to be 10 times stronger than steel or a fifth of the metal’s weight. This makes them essential for high-tech industries where lower weight achieves big performance benefits and cost savings. The Solar Impulse, for instance, has a wingspan wider than a Boeing 747, but it weighs just 2,300kg compared to 43,000Kg of a standard Boeing 747-400 air wing!

Composites are a space-age technology, but they have already gone mainstream in sports and taken over the market for high competition sailing - Alex Thompson on BOSS in the current Vendee Globe - America’s Cup - level bicycles, tennis rackets, and snowboards, etc.
The Financial Times reported that the total market for composite materials “last year was worth $78.3bn, and should increase to $107.4bn by 2021, according to Lucintel, the consulting and market research group”.
The leaders in composites are today Toray of Japan and Hexcel of the US. Solvay catapulted into the top three players last year when it paid $6.4bn to acquire Cytec, a US-based provider of these materials to the aerospace sector.

The market is having difficulty taking off in the car industry because of costs and only super cars or competitive formula I are spending the costs. Steel and plastic remains the dominant material due to cost. Carbon fiber ranges from $22 to $33/kg. compared to less than $2/kg.
The Governmental pressure on the automotive industry around the world to reduce consumption will force the manufacturers to insert more and more carbon composite to lower the weight thus increasing consumption will eventually reduce the costs.

So far, BMW is leading the shift in the auto market. It introduced the first mass-produced passenger car whose frame and panels are made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic in 2013 with its i3 model, an electric vehicle for city use. The same year it launched its hybrid i8 sports car, which also has a body made from composites. In both cars, the carbon fiber is 30 per cent lighter than aluminum. The i-series has not yet been a huge market success because of costs but it is certainly a good start. BMW says its early investment has given it a two to three-year edge over competitors in understanding how to build a car from carbon fiber materials. The interesting development here is the fact that BMW is not targeting the super-rich but middle class. Lamborghini and Ferrari have already incorporated carbon composite in large quantity but it remains a niche market.

In the Aerospace industry, Composites are part of everyday life. For a long time, the aerospace industry has suffered of a weight obsession. Weight is one of the three most important factors, after aerodynamics and engine performance, affecting the efficiency of an aircraft. Less fuel means lower carbon dioxide emissions, as well as savings on a significant operating cost for airlines.

Finding new ways to lower weight is preoccupying the aerospace industry as it prepares for the next generation of aircraft, and we have seen it with the Boeing 787. The aerospace industry is under a lot of scrutiny by various agencies around the world and governments have agreed at the world’s first global climate deal for the aviation industry to work and monitor aviation emission with the scope of reduction although the number of passengers is expecting to grow drastically in the next 30 years from 3.6 billion in 2016 to 16 billion by 2050, according to IATA, so cutting growing emissions is a priority.
The extensive use of new materials — including carbon fiber reinforced polymer — has led to huge weight savings. Composite materials were introduced in 1985 on the tail fin of aircraft such as the Airbus A310 wide-body. Today, Boeing and Airbus have broken new ground with their latest wide-body models, the 787 and A350. Roughly 50 percent of these aircraft is made of carbon fiber plastic and other composite materials. Boeing boasts that the 787 offers a 20 per cent weight saving compared with the equivalent aluminum aircraft.

The pressure is now on the suppliers to deliver parts that are lighter for the same applications. Engine makers, too, are finding ways to lighten their turbines — on average weighing 6,350kg each for large jets. Roughly 340kg can be cut from a wide-body engine by using composite materials for fan blades according to Rolls-Royce. Titanium aluminide, an even newer material that replaces heavier nickel alloys, can make further reductions in the hottest parts of an engine. then the casing can be lighter and thinner.

Interesting enough however is that the aircraft are not necessarily lighter, because many of the pounds shed in recent years have allowed the manufacturer to offer new features or more passengers from safer seats to larger windows. New manufacturing methods such as 3D printing offer radical ways to design aircraft and components.

Efficiency is the word and the Happy Days of the Carbon and other advanced material Composite are yet to come. 2017 will be another year of excitement an success story!

Libra6 Management, Corp. operates in Cleantech and alternative technology and is currently leading an investment in California Carbon Industry

California Carbon Industry, Inc. is focused on designing, developing, and manufacturing advanced carbon and composite materials and products for use in the aerospace, automotive, marine, art, furniture and construction industries.