The intersection of fuel and non-metallic technology: How big oil is making carbon fibre affordable for transportation?

Saudi Aramco is conducting R&D to develop low-cost technologies for carbon fibre manufacturing and carbon fibre reinforced polymers processing. This strategy will create a major future use for oil while making carbon fibre more affordable and more sustainable. At the intersection of fuel and non-metallic technology, the company’s corporate non-metallic initiative can revolutionise the automotive industry, comments Ahmad Al Saadi

Ahmad Al Saadi is senior vice president of technical services at Saudi Aramco, overseeing engineering services, project management, IT, and materials supply.
Ahmad Al Saadi is senior vice president of technical services at Saudi Aramco, overseeing engineering services, project management, IT, and materials supply.

Appearances can be deceiving. In its normal state, carbon fibre (CF) is wispy, easily frayed by a gentle tug. But weave the black strands together, and those gossamer threads become 10 times stronger than steel, yet 40% lighter than aluminium – and with a high thermal conductivity that delivers performance, quality and functionality.

As the source of both the world’s hardest substance (diamond) and one of the softest (graphite), carbon has unparalleled properties that make the reinforcing material ideal for complex, high-efficiency products and structures. Adding to its manufacturing appeal, CF can increase tensile strength with other mechanical properties, depending on how it is woven – making its versatility a major draw for industries like space and aviation.

But it gets better. This mainstay of Formula 1 racing is positioned to become a major disruptive force for the automotive industry. Trends indicate that lighter weight yet higher strength is the hallmark of future road cars, with electric vehicles’ design compensating for heavy battery weight to extend driving distance per charge, and innovative materials like CF offsetting the additional systems and technologies used in autonomous vehicles.

In theory, as the risk of human error is reduced, vehicles can be lighter without compromising safety. And in practice, CF material has long had a proven safety edge. In 1981, Grand Prix driver John Watson spun out in a crash that horrified spectators were sure was fatal. And it might have been, had his McLaren not been the first F1 car to use ultra-strong carbon fibre in its construction. Mobility trends indicate that with lighter cars having lower safety requirements than traditional metallic construction, increasing polymer share in general will help ensure that vehicles are more efficient, durable and comfortable – as well as safer.

Surface topographical image of weaved carbon fibres.

Cost is a barrier
So, why aren’t composite materials more common in today’s cars? In a word, expense. While the cost of CF has dropped more than 90% over the past decade, at $15 to $20 per kilogram for automotive use, it is still 10 times the cost of steel – making its use in transportation more representative of the Lamborghini Aventador than the family sedan.

In addition, production speed hampers carbon fibre’s potential. Stamping one steel-based car component in a high-pressure press takes mere seconds, while the same process for Carbon Fibre Reinforced Polymers (CFRP) can take hours, counting layout, pouring the resin and waiting for it to cure.

What does any of this have to do with an oil and gas company? Plenty, for Saudi Aramco. We are pursuing innovation that can make CF more affordable for mass mobility. In fact, we are running two initiatives: replacing metals with high-performance CFRP, and redesigning autonomous vehicles with a high polymer share.

Although CF can be manufactured from various precursors, right now over 95% of the world’s supply is made from naphtha-treated polyacrylonitrile (PAN), with pitch being the next most common raw material. Today, PAN is mainly produced by converting propylene from naphtha fraction out of crude oil refining.

As demand grows for CF – in automotive use, engineering and other sectors like aerospace and the wind industry – market demand is expected to grow exponentially. According to a recent consultancy study we sponsored as the basis of our Corporate Non-metallic Initiative, the automotive sector will require around 10 million tonnes of CF per year by 2035.

Bridging cost and production gaps
This exponential increase over the current 80,000 tonnes will require more Acrylonitrile (ACN), which Saudi Aramco can provide. We aim to enable the production of ACN in Saudi Arabia to supply different chemical industries including PAN, as well as rubber industries, among others.

That strategy was recently boosted by an agreement between Saudi Aramco, INEOS and Total to build world-scale plants producing CF building blocks – including the first in the Middle East to produce ACN – to help meet growing global demand. Saudi Aramco’s ‘Low-Cost CF Research Programme’ is driven to lead technology advancements by exploring different precursors, including pitch and polyethylene.

Also, by improving the energy consumption at different levels of the heat treatment process, we can close the gaps on both high CF costs and production-speed issues. In parallel, we are developing technologies to adapt some of the existing CFRP technologies for mass production. The main idea is to develop breakthrough technologies and/or adapt the existing composites processing technologies for cost-effective, high-volume manufacturing.

We are currently conducting a feasibility study to design an autonomous vehicle with a high-share of polymers that will be deployed within Aramco facilities. The aim is to achieve a minimum of 50% of polymers components, for efficiency and safety. On the other side, we are working to increase the share of polymers in autonomous vehicles from the actual 18% to 50% by 2035.

Today, autonomous vehicles are proven to be involved in fewer crashes on average than vehicles with a driver behind the wheel. On a scale of one through five, with the present Level 2 having some autonomous features, a Level 5 vehicle would be entirely self-driving and capable of making operational decisions.

With a true Level 5, we can assume that a zero-accident target is achievable, making it feasible to lower safety requirements in which high-strength composites may not be required. Thus, redesigning autonomous vehicles with greater polymers share will become more practical.

Surface topographical image of weaved carbon fibres.

The environmental edge
There is a third element to Saudi Aramco’s CF focus: the materials’ lighter environmental footprint. Non-metallics are known across industries for their ability to help manage corrosion (and avoid its high costs); that ability to combat rust is also a boon for the automotive industry.

But, CF’s thermal, mechanical and chemical properties also translate into strategic advantages, such as mass reduction and a more aerodynamic shape that can deliver a 30% bump in fuel efficiency over traditional transport, reducing emissions. These factors have strong potential to drive new demand for oil in the transport sector, even as we work to develop innovative fuel formulations and more efficient engines.

There are several CF applications for hydrogen vehicles and associated infrastructure – for example, the manufacture of storage tanks for hydrogen fuel cell (FC) vehicles, a market predicted to grow from 20% to 40% by 2030. Right now, commercial use of hydrogen FCs is small. But, the potential increase over the next decade is considerable, especially for trucks and their associated infrastructure such as cylinders and pipelines.

Around the globe, zero-emission prototype FC trucks are rolling out, from Toyota’s Sora in Japan and Kenworth’s T680 in the US, to Hyundai’s Swiss joint venture and Dongfeng in China. In addition to these vehicles’ longer range and shorter refuelling time, they will make greater use of CF, from the current 350 tonnes to 230,000 tonnes by 2030.

Unleashing CF for mass mobility
In short, a greater abundance of CF from competitive feedstocks using energy-efficient, cost-effective technology can drive CF’s cost down to a long sought-after $10 per kilogram, enabling a wider swathe of the mobility industry to take advantage of non-metallic materials that can improve fuel efficiency, reduce emissions and save lives by absorbing impact in a way that steel cannot.

Proven in the extreme crucibles of auto racing and aerospace, CF is the next frontier for the mass mobility market. With oil’s predominant use being transport, it makes sense that diversifying into non-metallic materials will uncover ways to make CF more broadly available – as we derive even greater value from oil at every link of the hydrocarbon chain.

Slender as a human hair, yet one of the strongest commercial reinforcing fibres – durable, lightweight and flexible in design – carbon fibre is uniquely positioned to be transport’s super-hero. And at the intersection of fuel and non-metallic technology, CF’s superpowers are about to be unleashed.

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