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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

What Are Material Suppliers Doing to Become Sustainable Businesses?

The short answer to this questions is – not enough.  While there are lots of goals laid out by all companies, and lots of sustainability awards being given out to the usual suspects, in truth, and unfortunately, while it is not nearly as bad as “green-washing”, and there are a few bright spots, by and large the industry is not moving to a sustainable business model quickly enough.


To their credit, however, several of them if not all are actually trying pretty hard to work toward a truly sustainable way of manufacturing the fibers and resins that go into composites.  I’m mostly talking about carbon fiber / epoxy here because that is the future of composites as commodity materials, and also has the largest carbon footprint of all of the fiber / resin combinations. 

I like the pic above (Hexion – thank you) because it truly tells the story of where the industry needs to go.  Note that there is an organic polymer with a chain of benzene rings in light grey in the foreground of this pic.  This appears to me to be an aromatic polymer, and if I took the time to study it more thoroughly could probably tell you what it is, but the fact that it is intended to be coming from this little plant tells the entire story.  Mother nature is the organic chemistry genius that built all of the plants and animals that use this chemistry, and it is also the chemistry of composite materials.  That is of course the point that I have been making for some time now, and it appears that the material suppliers are coming to be on board with this idea. 

Getting to a sustainable future for composites is not going to be easy, nor will it be inexpensive.  In fact, the challenge for the industry is to figure out a way to completely change their business model; including coming up with a new manufacturing process, new supply chain, new manufacturing facilities, and a completely new product mix; without going out of business or even lose profit margin along the way.  Most of the manufacturers of composite fibers and resins are publicly traded companies, or have independent Boards that will not allow them to go out of business while making the transition.   

So, with this post as well as next week’s post, I would like to highlight a few that are making the transition in a responsible way, and also talk about the efforts of the remainder that are doing what they can now but have a plan for the future.  I also want to provide some sense of whether their plans will achieve true sustainability, or if they still have some work to do.  This is only meant to be informative.  I am not going to pass judgement on any of these folks.  Like I said, the transition is going to be very difficult and very expensive, and these companies have to stay in business for the good of everyone in the industry.

So, for this week, let’s start with the largest of the carbon fiber suppliers.  Next week I will talk about efforts by the major resin suppliers, to round out the story of what’s going on in the world of sustainability at the major producers of fiber and resin for composites. 

A little warning here for my readers – this week’s and next weeks posts are going to be somewhat longer than my normal two to three pagers.  There is a lot to cover here and I don’t want to leave anything important out of the posts.  Anyway, here you go. 


Toray – Toray has been making its sustainability goals and report available to the public for several years now.  A link to the current sustainability report is here:  https://www.toray.com/global/sustainability/download/.  They have committed to net zero emissions by 2050, and have charted a course to get to that goal.  And this is through several avenues; supply of sustainable products through innovation, reduction in CO2 emissions throughout their value chain, water filtration and purification membrane sales and use, significant reductions in CO2 emissions in all of their material production activities with targets of as much as a 50% reduction by 2030, and reduction of water use in their production activities, with a goal of a 50% reduction by 2030.


These goals in and of themselves are consistent with them being able to achieve them given that they remain focused on sustainability.  And to ensure that they are doing just that, they have a comparison between where they were in 2013 to where they were at the end of 2022 and it appears that they are on track to reach their 2030 targets. 

They have a mission statement in their sustainability report that makes a bold statement about using plants to make bioplastics as one of their main objectives to meet the stated goal of net zero emissions by 2050.  Their report notes they are using sugar cane fiber to make a plant-based polyester for fabrics, and potentially also for composites.  This is also a good sign that they might just make it to net zero emissions. 

All in all, a pretty good start, and a good statement at the corporate governance level.  That means that they are committed to a sustainable future.  One thing that remains missing is the development of a biologically based carbon fiber precursor – essentially plant-based acrylonitrile.  I do have a suspicion however that since Solvay (a competitor) is already scaling up their bio-based acrylonitrile that Toray is probably not too far behind – at least in their R&D labs.  And, since this business is as competitive as it is, they won’t announce it until they have it figured out and have figured out how to make it at scale.


Solvay – These folks of course are already beginning to use a plant-based polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fiber developed by Trillium (Bio-ACN™) and Southern Research (Birmingham,



Alabama) to develop a completely plant-based carbon fiber.  They have been working on this for two years at this point, so they are well on their way to bringing a fully plant-based carbon fiber to market.  They will only be the first of a much longer list of carbon fiber producers that introduce plant-based carbon fiber.  As I mentioned above, I believe that Toray is already working on this because of their competitive market position.  Solvay will just be the first.

Solvay also has a sustainability program that they make public, and that they also measure their progress against.  The link to their Sustainability efforts and progress is on their website at https://www.solvay.com/en/sustainability.  Mostly in this report they talk about their efforts to reduce emissions, reduce waste, clean up process water so that it can be released back into streams and rivers as fresh water, and nearly as importantly to ensure that everyone in their supply chain also is committed to sustainable materials and practices.  In other words, their sustainability efforts sit at the level of corporate governance and provide one of the main drivers to their efforts to be in business in the distant future. 

Since Solvay is a European company (Brussels, Belgium), they are a large part of the European drive to build a sustainable economy for Europe – largely driven by stated EU goals for sustainability.  And, since Solvay is such a large entity, even by European standards, they understand their place in Europe’s economy and live up to their promises.  All in all, a good plan for the future and one that appears to be successful.


Nippon Carbon Fiber Corporation – This is part of the Nippon Carbon Co., Ltd. companies and is the third largest producer of carbon fiber according to Fortune Business Insights (https://www.fortunebusinessinsights.com/blog/top-carbon-fiber-manufacturers-10965).  Their main claim to fame is their carbon electrodes for the carbon arc furnaces in steel making.  Most of their carbon fiber is a commodity grade carbon fiber primarily sold into the sporting goods, construction, and thermal management industries, although they also sell into the commercial satellite space. 

This company hasn’t got much in terms of sustainability, at least they do not advertise as much as do others.  This could be because their primary customers are mostly based in Asia and their major stockholders are Nippon Steel and ENEOS Material Trading company, both of which are headquartered in Japan. 

It is interesting that this company – founded in 1915 – was the first to produce a carbon fiber.  They are apparently a very conservative company, because Toray has significantly out-competed them in the carbon fiber market.  And if you read through their annual report from 2022 (do this google search:  “Nippon graphite fiber company sustainability report 2022”) and read it there is little space given to actual R&D or technology development efforts other than to develop new avenues for growth with what they already know how to do – like silicon carbide fiber and carbon electrodes.  It also appears that carbon fiber is not one of their main product lines, which is probably why Toray is so much larger of a producer of carbon fiber than Nippon Carbon. 

All in all, not much in actual sustainability as it is defined in the composites industry.  They do have something of a recycling effort going on, but not much in development of sustainable materials. 


Teijin Limited – This is a company that sells not only carbon fiber, but aramid fiber, synthetic fibers, polymer films, resins, even pharmaceuticals.  They are a fully integrated organic materials manufacturing company that makes a range of fibers and resins in use in the composites industry. 

Teijin has made a commitment to sustainability that they have turned into a set of corporate goals at the corporate governance level (https://www.teijin.com/csr/sustainability/policy.html).  One of their goals – actually the one stated first is “Environmental Value Solutions”.  There is an image that they have on that site that shares their goals and what those goals mean.



This company has also joined in the “UN Global Impact” initiation for sustainable development.  Joining this is entirely voluntary for companies, but it does state a rather large commitment to sustainability and to elimination of their carbon footprint as a company.  They have even revised their Corporate Code of Conduct to align with this UN initiative. 

As you dig deeper into what Teijin is doing, they are systematically reducing or eliminating sources of CO2 emissions, as well as recycling scrap into new products rather than landfilling, and recycling end of life materials back into usable carbon fiber composites.  In addition to this, they are integrating bioplastics and bio-derived resins and precursors in lots of the products that they make, as well as renewable energy for most of their manufacturing processes.  All together they expect to be able to meet or exceed the goals of the UN initiative that they voluntarily signed up for. 

In one product, their proprietary fully recyclable carbon fiber thermoplastic Sereebo®, they expect to get to a 76% reduction in CO2 emissions.  This stuff is being used for the bed interiors in GM pickups, battery boxes for EVs, and is being adapted to several other high production rate applications.  Fully recyclable and reusable as sheet molding compound, this is one of the good examples of a sustainable use of carbon fiber in industry. 

Bottom line – Teijin is actively working on revamping their business model to adapt to the new world of zero net carbon emissions by 2050.


Hexcel Corporation – This company was founded in 1948 in Berkeley, California by a group of engineering students from UC Berkeley that were all friends and classmates and a good friend of theirs with an economics degree (thankfully) from Stanford.  Originally they built fiberglass honeycomb for the Air Force, and eventually the Space Shuttle.  They grew from those modest beginnings to becoming one of the world’s largest producers of composite fibers and resins.  Their venerable mix – AS4/3501 – was the aerospace standard carbon/epoxy composite material for decades.  I have of course run across a number of people from Hexcel (or Ciba and Hercules which they acquired) over the years in my journeys in composites. 

Hexcel has a sustainability program that covers most of the bases in efforts to become sustainable.  They also have a spot on their website dedicated to their sustainability goals and practices - https://www.hexcel.com/sustainability/. One thing that they did some years back was to pursue ISO 14001 (Environmental Management) and ISO 45001 (Safety Standard) certifications for all of their production facilities.  In fact, their new Research and Technology Center in Salt Lake City was designed and built to these standards.  They state that more than 85% of their sites are ISO 14001:2015 certified, and more than 50% of their sites are ISO 45001:2018 certified.  This is a pretty aggressive stance and one that has taken quite a bit of investment on the part of Hexcel.  And it speaks also to their corporate governance and the fact that the top leadership of the company understands that to remain competitive and in the business in the future they need to transition to a sustainable business model. 

Their product sustainability targets as stated in their 2023 report and on their website are to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30%, reduce waste to landfill by 30%, and reduce fresh water use by 20% by 2030.  These are attainable goals, and realistic based on the ongoing projects that they have that are focused completely on reaching these goals.  And they are doing this site by site.  Each facility that produces products does their own assessments and institutes projects intended to make a positive impact on reaching their sustainability goals.  Since Hexcel is a worldwide company at this point, this effort is going on in every facility that Hexcel operates around the globe. 



They are also instituting projects that provide quite a bit of circularity to their carbon fiber composite business.  These are mostly recycling and reuse projects, and they are making good progress in recycling and reusing their legacy materials – especially in the aerospace business, both commercial and defense.  They even have a PPE recycling initiative in concert with Kimberly Clark to recycle nitrile gloves, face masks, safety glasses, and protective clothing into plastic pellets to be used in the consumer products industry.

What seems to be missing – at least from what we can see from the surface, is reduction in their reliance on petroleum feedstocks for raw material and precursors to both fiber and resin products.  But, again, if they are working on plant-base precursors or plastics, they are probably going to stay mum about it until they actually have something to brag about. 


That’s about enough for this week.  I hope everyone that reads these posts enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them.  As usual I will post this first on my website – www.nedpatton.com – as well as on LinkedIn.  And if anyone wants to provide comments to this, I welcome them with open arms.  Comments, criticisms, etc. are all quite welcome.  I really do want to engage in a conversation with all of you about composites because we can learn so much from each other as long as we share our own perspectives. 

I wanted to add that this is my 100th post in this space, plus a few special posts along the way, so I’ve been doing this for a couple of years at this point.  And I don’t see any reason to slow down either, since I’m still looking down at the dirt rather than looking up – if you get my drift. 

I also wanted to remind everyone that I will be speaking at the SAMPE conference in Long Beach in May.  I’m going to be talking about the subject that I have a passion for – composites sustainability – in case you hadn’t guessed.  Maybe I can help shake up the industry a bit again, like what happened at the Carbon Fiber Conference in Salt Lake.  One can only hope.  Anyway, for anyone that is interested in materials and process engineering, SAMPE will be a great conference.  And they will have a really great exhibit as well. 

And, finally, I still need to plug my book, so here’s the plug.  The book pretty much covers the watershed in composites, starting with a brief history of composites, then introducing the Periodic Table and why Carbon is such an important and interesting element.  The book was published and made available last August, and is available both on Amazon and from McFarland Books – my publisher.  However, the best place to get one is to go to my website and buy one.  I will send you a signed copy for the same price you would get charged on Amazon, except that I charge $8 shipping.  Anyway, here’s the link to get your signed copy:  https://www.nedpatton.com/product-page/the-string-and-glue-of-our-world-signed-copy.  And as usual, here’s a picture of the book, for those of you just tuning in. 



 

 

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