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How carbon fiber makes air travel comfier

Japanese companies explore 'dream materials' that spur innovation

Boeing's 787 assembly line in South Carolina. An estimated 35 tons of carbon fiber composite material is used to manufacture the plane.

TOKYO -- Passengers on All Nippon Airways or Japan Airlines flights these days may notice that they are less tired after the journey, that their skin is less irritated than usual, and that their ears did not hurt as much upon landing.

If so, chances are they were aboard a Boeing 787. And the secret behind the improvements would be Toray Industries' carbon fiber used in the airframe.

Dubbed a "dream material" for more than half a century, carbon fiber is a quarter of the weight of iron but 10 times stronger. It is the front-runner among the various materials that Japanese companies such as Toray, Teijin and Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings are pursuing in the next wave of innovation.

An estimated 35 tons of carbon fiber composite material is used to manufacture the 787. According to ANA, which has introduced 61 of the aircraft since the autumn of 2011, the midsize widebody jetliner is 21% more fuel efficient than the Boeing 767, which is in the same class.

But fuel efficiency and environmental performance are not the only advantages. Carbon fiber does not corrode like metal, meaning the airline has been able to reduce aircraft maintenance costs by around 30%. This has also allowed carriers to install air humidifiers throughout their planes, rather than just in the cockpit like before.

Carbon fiber does not corrode like metal, which means aircraft, like this one from ANA, can install humidifiers throughout their planes.

Additionally, the material makes it possible to maintain higher air pressure during the flight, which helps reduce ear pain and lessens fatigue.

"Our customers have shown high levels of satisfaction," said an ANA official. "The advantages of the 787 go well beyond lower fuel costs."

Fishing for success

How did Japanese companies manage to turn a material that was originally researched by various countries for military use into a commercial cash cow?

"It goes back to fishing," said Yasuo Suga, senior vice president of Toray. "Luckily, we were partners with manufacturers of fishing gear. Our technology improved through serving them and because we continued, we can now supply to the airline industry," he said.

As anglers got more determined to catch fish in inaccessible areas, demand increased for longer rods for traditional river fishing.

Tasked with making rods up to 10 meters in length, manufacturers sought stronger and lighter carbon fiber materials.

In response, Toray strove to raise the quality of its products, fine-tuning them down to the last nanometer.

The obstacles to wide use of carbon fiber were high production costs and the difficulty of cutting and shaping it. But higher oil prices have stoked demand for the material and progress in manufacturing technology has eased many of the production headaches.

Next up, electric vehicles

"The accelerating shift toward electric cars presents a major opportunity for carbon fiber material to make inroads into the auto sector," said Takato Watabe, an analyst at Morgan Stanley MUFG Securities. Electric vehicles will be carrying a heavy load of lithium-ion batteries and the auto industry will be searching for ways to bring the car weight down. 

One savior could be carbon nanotubes, another carbon-based "dream" material. Said to have electric conductivity like that of copper and heat conductivity like that of diamonds, carbon nanotubes could be used to significantly improve the performance of lithium-ion batteries.

The main technological challenge to commercial use was the tendency of the particles to disperse.

To solve the problem, trading giant Mitsubishi Corp. has used technology developed by a startup to manufacture nanotube particles that are solidified with resin.

"We want to use the new material to help develop partnerships between carbon nanotube makers and corporate consumers," said a manager in charge of the business at Mitsubishi.

Carbon nanotubes are becoming a billion-value industry with many Asian companies trying to take a piece of the pie. South Korea's leading chemical company LG Chem this year began operation of one of the world's largest carbon nanotube plants with an annual capacity of 400 tons. South Korea's Kumho Petrochemical, China's CNano Technology and Japan's Showa Denko are some of the other players.

Food for thought

A number of Japanese companies have also been pushing boundaries in the field of food technology.

Pangasius, a variety of catfish sometimes referred to as basa fish, has "the potential to radically change the market for farmed fish," said Masanori Miyahara, president of the Japan Fisheries Research and Education Agency. 

Grilled pangasius on sale at an Aeon supermarket.

Some 85% of pangasius comes from Vietnam, the largest exporter in the world.

With the fish growing in popularity in many countries due to the development of cultivation techniques, seafood companies like Maruha Nichiro have spearheaded production and market development.

Boneless and neutral in taste, pangasius is used widely in fried fish burgers. It has been touted as an alternative to walleye pollock, a traditionally popular white fish that is now subject to strict international catch regulations.

In Japan, leading retail conglomerate Aeon group markets pangasius as an alternative to eel, which is also facing the risk of depletion.

The species' remarkable productivity gives it enormous market potential. The amount of feed required to increase the weight of the fish by 1kg is only one-tenth of that for bluefin tuna. Additionally, the ratio of costly fish meal in the feed can be less than 10%.

The development of efficient feeding techniques has also helped.

Due to the fish's ability to grow quickly on a light diet, pangasius farming can meet the growing demand for seafood in emerging countries without threatening marine resources.

The new wave of innovation in high-tech materials and resources offers potentially lucrative opportunities for Japanese companies. The key is for industries to team up with each other to overcome the obstacles that hinder the wide use of the material.

Across Asia, Chinese President Xi Jinping is calling for "technological breakthroughs," while his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in has championed developing a "startup country full of entrepreneurial ventures."

Japan's way forward looks to be in dream materials.

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