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Race for high-tech materials changing heavy industry

Market for lighter, stronger composite materials to shape aircraft manufacturing, shipbuilding

TOKYO -- The emergence of new composite materials is driving major technology shifts in the aerospace industry and beyond.

CFRP-based ship propellers beat copper alloy equivalents on fuel efficiency and vibration.

Breakthrough materials are changing the competitive landscapes in global markets. Both materials manufacturers and players in other fields are racing to develop composites that outperform existing materials.

Okayama-based manufacturer Nakashima Propeller has developed a new carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic material used to make lighter propellers for merchant ships.

CFRP is made of carbon fibers embedded in another material, typically a resin.

At the company's plant, roughly halfway between Hiroshima and Osaka, workers carefully place sheets of carbon fiber into a mold by hand. Up to 500 to 600 sheets of the carbon fibers are layered before being embedded.

The company then uses a vacuum-bagging process, whereby air is sucked out of bags enclosing the molds before the resin is infused. This ensures the fibers are embedded with no space remaining between layers.

The timing of the infusion and control of the temperature are crucial to the process.

Nakashima Propeller's CFRP propellers are 40% to 50% lighter than conventional products made of copper alloys, but just as strong. They can also reduce aquatic vibration by up to 50%.

CFRP propellers are over five times more expensive than copper-alloy equivalents. However, they can boost the fuel efficiency of a vessel by 5% to 6%, meaning the entire life cycle of the product presents significant savings.

The company has won contracts to supply 10 CFRP-based propellers for container ships and other merchant vessels since it started using the new material in 2014. It has a two-year backlog of orders.

Composite materials have been used in aircraft for many years. CFRP, for instance, is one of the main materials for Boeing's 787 jetliner, accounting for about half of the aircraft's weight.

Yet, that does not necessarily mean composites is set to dominate the market.

The body of Boeing's next-generation 777X jetliner will be made of an aluminum alloy and the weight ratio of CFRP is expected to decline to around 20%. There are signs that CFRP, which was first adopted widely in aircraft manufacture in the 1990's, is at risk of losing its competitive edge.

"We need to differentiate the fibers we use and lower production costs," says Jun Suzuki, president and CEO of Teijin, a major Japanese chemical and textile maker.

Tokyo-based multinational Toray Industries is staking its future on aircraft engine materials, which require enormous durability and heat resistance. The company has developed its own high-performance CFRP for use in a wider range of aircraft engine components, such as fan blades.

Toray has concluded a 10-year supply contract with French aircraft engine maker Safran.

Jet engines have primarily been made of nickel alloys that can endure temperatures exceeding 1,500 C. Titanium is now also becoming increasingly common due to its light weight. But Toray believes CFRP has a good chance of becoming a serious challenger to these materials.

Rolls-Royce, one of the world's big three aircraft engine manufacturers, is opting for ceramic matrix composites, or silicon carbide fibers surrounded by a ceramic matrix.

The British maker has opened a new research and development center in California to develop CMC materials for jet engines.

Silicon carbide fibers are made by heating organic silicon compounds for hardening and then knitting them into fibers. They can endure temperatures of up to 1,900 C -- 20% higher than nickel alloys -- and are two thirds lighter, and twice as strong.

Two Japanese manufactures, Nippon Carbon and Ube Industries, are the only companies that have the technology to commercially produce silicon carbide fibers.

General Electric, the world's largest jet engine maker, has teamed up with Nippon Carbon to manufacture the material. The U.S. giant hopes to start annual production of 10 tons of CMCs in mid-2017.

GE plans to use CMCs for key parts of its next-generation large jet engine, GE9X, including high-pressure turbine components. Use of the material will improve the engine's fuel efficiency by 2%.


Makers of traditional materials, meanwhile, are stepping up efforts to develop new products that can hold their own against super composites.

Leading aluminum products maker UACJ has developed a new method of manufacturing an aluminum alloy called "7150." Arconic, a spinoff from Alcoa focused on downstream products, has been dominant in the market for this alloy.

UACJ's plant in Oyama, north of Tokyo, is now making sample products made of 7150.

The company is seeking to win Boeing's endorsement of 7150 products for use in aircraft wings and fuselages by 2018. It plans to triple its production of materials for airplanes by 2020.

But Arconic spent $1.5 billion in 2015 to acquire RTI International Metals, a world-leading maker of titanium products. The U.S. lightweight metal powerhouse is trying to transform itself into an all-round supplier of metal materials for aircraft makers.


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