TOKYO -- A new carbon fiber composite from Mitsubishi Chemical costs just half as much as existing materials to make into such items as autoparts, brightening prospects for putting strong, lightweight components into mass-market cars in the coming years.
The Mitsubishi Chemical Holdings unit has combined carbon fiber fabric with resin interspersed with fibers between 2cm and 3cm long. The resin material is easily moldable and soft until processed, meaning that the composite can be pressed into shape in as little as two minutes. The strength lost from cutting the fibers in the resin shorter than usual is compensated for by the weaving.
Mitsubishi Chemical can churn out 3,000 tons of composites using short carbon fibers a year in Japan, and another 1,000 tons in Europe. It plans to invest around 1 billion yen ($8.94 million) in 2018 to build a U.S. plant capable of making thousands of tons more, with group member Mitsubishi Rayon having acquired in March an American startup with robust composite design technology.
Carbon fiber materials are much lighter than steel and so are ideal for making vehicles more fuel-efficient. But molding autoparts from conventional carbon fiber materials, which use fibers several meters long, takes close to 10 minutes. Such inefficient production, added to higher processing costs than those involved in making aluminum or steel parts, has traditionally made carbon fiber components suitable only for high-end vehicles costing 5 million yen or more.
Carbon for the masses
Should Mitsubishi Chemical's innovations catch on, manufacturers could start using the material for structural components in midmarket cars selling for around 3 million yen. The Japanese company is providing samples to automakers in the U.S. and Europe, aiming to have the material included in 10 vehicles by 2020. France's JEC group predicts the market for carbon fiber composites in automobiles will grow 80% between 2016 and 2020, from 135,000 tons to 240,000 tons, as related technologies continue to advance.
Japan's Toray Industries, Teijin and Mitsubishi Chemical together command 60% of the global carbon fiber market. But European manufacturers have traditionally led in composites made from that base material and technology used to process carbon fiber parts.
The Japanese set has turned to acquisitions to catch up in downstream operations. Teijin snapped up American carbon fiber autoparts maker Continental Structural Plastics for $825 million in January. Toray has acquired composites makers in Italy and other countries.
Carbon fiber composite is now considered a key structural material for aircraft, employed in such models as Boeing's 787. But it is fairly new to cars, inviting intense competition from companies hoping to make their offerings the standard. Fiberglass composites maker Mitsui Chemicals is working with a subsidiary on possible candidates. Toray is developing processing technology for composites incorporating short carbon fibers.