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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Wind Energy is Taking Off – and All the Turbine Blades are Composite

With the approval last week of the Revolution Wind project off the shore of Rhode Island, the Biden administration has to date approved 4 major wind energy projects since the passage of the Infrastructure Act in November of 2021. This is a major accomplishment which will have an enormous impact on our energy infrastructure, and on the composites industry. All of the turbine blades for these projects, each of which has on the order of 100 wind turbines, and together represent nearly 2.7 GW of offshore wind energy.

For the composites industry this represents many years of supplying wind turbine blades that each are between 100 and 150 feet long. And, while some of the smaller blades will be made using a carbon fiber spar with a glass airfoil, as these blades reach 150 feet or longer, glass fiber becomes too heavy and the blades will be made using all carbon fiber.

This is already happening in a couple of offshore wind projects in Europe. I believe I mentioned this in one of my earlier posts, but nine European countries signed a deal in 2022 to make a huge expansion of wind energy production in the North Sea. And, since those turbines are going to be very large and since the winds in the North Sea can be quite strong, several of the larger turbines that are going to be built in Europe will have all carbon fiber wind turbine blades.

This is both good and frightening news for the carbon fiber business because at the current production rates, and even with some planned expansion of both current facilities and new build facilities, the global supply of high quality carbon fiber is not sufficient to meet this demand. Needless to say, companies like Toray are scrambling to build new facilities to manufacture carbon fiber, and those facilities are being built in reasonable proximity to where the carbon fiber is going to be used. Toray for example is expanding both its Spartanburg, NC plant and their Everett, WA plant. Especially the Spartanburg plant will be expanded by some 30,000 square feet. Toray is convinced that the green energy industry is going to provide a 17% per year increase in demand for carbon fiber through 2050, and they are building to meet that demand.

The same is true for the rest of the carbon fiber producers in North America, as well as South Korea, and even in India and China. The fibers for the wind turbines that will be installed offshore in the US are largely manufactured in North America where there are several carbon and glass fiber manufacturers. And the fibers that will be used in the North Sea wind farms will largely be sourced from either European facilities or from South Korea.

All of this is very good news for the composites industry, and it also provides something of a good problem that the carbon and glass fiber producers, as well as the resin producers, are going to have to deal with. That is, how to increase capacity to meet demand without overbuilding and eventually flooding the market with carbon fiber that they can’t sell. And, while that is a good problem to solve, it takes a very coherent long term strategy for these companies to ensure that they can meet the demand and also stay in business.

And, of course, this is also going to lead eventually to a reduction in the price for carbon fiber as the manufacturers work out better ways to make fiber that are less expensive, and still maintain a low carbon footprint. Toray has promised to do just that, so we will see how that turns out and if they are successful.

And, I need to close with another thought. With the current beginnings of a move to a more sustainable set of precursors for carbon fiber – and I’m talking about bio-based PAN here – once this new technology comes on line commercially, there will be a revolution in the carbon fiber business. Not only will this become a sustainable model for the industry, it also is going to significantly lower the cost structure of the carbon fiber manufacturing industry. Crude oil prices are only going to go up, and the cost of the plant precursors in industrial production will only go down, so at some point it will be cost prohibitive to make industrial grade carbon fiber using petroleum precursors. Then, carbon fiber becomes a net carbon sink rather than being a net carbon dioxide producer.

That’s about enough for the news for the week. I wanted to remind everyone that I will be presenting two papers toward the end of this year. Both of them are about sustainability of composites – a subject that all of you that have read my posts know is a passion of mine. The first one is a paper about sustainability efforts for composites in general, with a focus on what to do with wind turbine blades. That one is going to be at the International Mechanical Engineering Congress and Exhibition in New Orleans October 29 to November 2 (https://event.asme.org/IMECE). The second one will be at the Carbon Fiber Conference in Salt Lake City being put on by Composites World (https://www.carbonfiberevent.com/). In that presentation I will focus on current work in sustainability of carbon fiber in particular. I’m of course going to talk about new fibers and fiber precursors made from plants, so again, focusing on closing the circle.

And, finally, for those of you that have not heard, my book has been published and is for sale. 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 for those of you with Amazon Prime. 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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