Thermoplastic composites in EVs, aerospace, and wind power: pros and cons

Annabelle Shu, Taipei; Vyra Wu, DIGITIMES Asia 0


In response to the growing trend towards achieving net-zero carbon emissions, carbon fiber materials and their associated composite counterparts are renowned for their remarkable strength and flexibility. Moreover, they contribute to weight reduction, which, in turn, enhances fuel efficiency, reduces battery consumption, and plays a pivotal role in mitigating carbon dioxide emissions. Among these materials, thermoplastic composite materials offer a multitude of advantages, including recyclability, reusability, adaptability in processing and shaping, reduced energy consumption during production, and expedited manufacturing processes. These attributes are in perfect alignment with the prevailing trends of energy conservation and carbon reduction, making them a focal point for substantial investment, particularly in pioneering applications within aerospace defense, wind power, transportation, and consumer electronics.

Shawn Chang, a Ph.D. at the Plastic Industry Development Center, has asserted that thermoplastic carbon fiber composites effectively realize the objectives of creating lightweight and high-strength products. These materials boast concise molding cycles, exceptional toughness, a diverse range of resin options, ease of processing, and freedom from storage constraints. Significantly, they offer the ability to be recycled and reused, aligning seamlessly with global trends in energy conservation and carbon reduction. The global market for thermoplastic carbon fiber composites, valued at US$9.8 billion in 2017, is anticipated to ascend to US$17 billion by 2025, exhibiting an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.6%.

The transition from glass fiber to carbon fiber is evident in the development of offshore wind turbine blades. Additionally, the automotive industry is experiencing heightened demand for lightweight components, driven by the pursuit of slim and lightweight 3C products. Consequently, substantial growth is observed in sectors such as transportation, aerospace, wind energy generation, consumer electronics, and construction. Dr. Chang emphasizes that achieving lightweight vehicles is a shared goal among global automakers, and the European Union's blueprint for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles to 75g CO2/km by 2025 serves as a powerful catalyst.

Among the array of materials used in the automotive sector, emerging composite materials are progressively gaining ground. Thermoplastic carbon fiber composites, characterized by their lightweight properties and high rigidity, contribute to enhanced fuel efficiency, reduced CO2 emissions, and improved safety standards. Furthermore, as EVs strive to extend their battery range, lightweighting becomes imperative. Thermoplastic composites find extensive utility in EVs, spanning beyond vehicle body structures to encompass charging equipment and battery module housings. Prominent players like the Taiwan MIH Open EV Alliance and Hyundai Motor in South Korea are actively incorporating thermoplastic composites into their EV chassis development endeavors. Concurrently, in line with the emergence of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, international teams are diligently researching the application of thermoplastic composites, including their utilization in hydrogen gas cylinders.

The worldwide wind power market is undergoing remarkable expansion within the framework of the net-zero carbon emissions trend. As wind turbine blades grow larger and heavier, their conversion efficiency diminishes. Consequently, carbon fiber, renowned for its lightweight properties, emerges as a viable solution. Taiwanese firms like Synera Renewable Energy and Tien Li Offshore Wind Technology are actively participating in this sector.

Beyond the previously mentioned sectors of aerospace, automotive, hydrogen energy, and wind power, a range of industries, including healthcare, electronics, and cycling, are witnessing a concerted push by businesses to leverage thermoplastic composites for advancing industrial capabilities.

While certain industry segments are lagging, Taiwan's lightweight thermoplastic composite sector is diligently addressing its existing bottlenecks. Dr. Chang further elucidates that foreign patent restrictions and the steep cost of essential equipment have confined Taiwan's composite industry to the realm of thermosetting composites, impeding a seamless transition to thermoplastic composites. Additionally, the use of unidirectional thermoplastic prepreg materials is subject to foreign regulations, impacting Taiwan's extensive downstream applications and causing delays in the development of lightweight products.