Carbon Fiber and Plastic Composites: Aluminum and Steel Killers?

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Source: The Economist

“Psst, Aluminum – watch your back, yo.”

That seems to be what plastic composites are saying more and more often these days, from General Motors’ old Saturn lines (remember those?) to Airbus’ new A350s.

Boeing Co. has defended aluminum metal as its fuselage material of choice for the new 777X that the company is building, but who knows how long the light, gray metal will be in favor – especially in the aerospace industry, where jet fuel is pretty darn costly and weight savings are just as imperative, if not more so, than in automotive lightweighting.

“Psst, Steel – you’re toast.”

Now, Finland-developed technology using carbon fiber in elevator cables is threatening to replace heavier steel cable in new skyscrapers, according to an article in the Economist. According to Johannes de Jong, Kone’s head of technology for large projects, “the steel ropes in a 400-metre-high lift weigh about 18,650kg. An UltraRope for such a lift would weigh 1,170kg. Altogether, the lift using the UltraRope would weigh 45% less than the one with the steel rope,” according to the article.

However, there’s a silver lining here for both aluminum and steel.

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Silver Lining for Aluminum

For aluminum, the cost factor is a huge one, as plastic composites are still much pricier for OEMs to use in their designs.

“Graphite and other composites, and even magnesium, are a promise unfulfilled,” in terms of bodies of vehicles, said Richard Schultz, managing director at Ducker Automotive, at the Aluminum Association’s Aluminum Week last year. Who knows, composites might come into play once we make cars that you won’t have to drive anymore, he said. “But I’ll be dead by then, so…” Schultz quipped.

With aluminum prices coming down as much as they have, and with the market oversupplied (if Glencore and Goldman’s LME warehouses ever spit some out for manufacturers to use it), aluminum still wins in many cost/benefit analyses.

Silver Lining for Steel

And for steel? If skyscrapers can now rise ever-higher, as the Economist article suggests, well then, that much more steel will need to be produced and sourced for the infrastructure.

After all, it’s probably inadvisable to build a carbon-fiber or plastic-composite version of the newest Burj Khalifa or Willis Tower just yet.

FREE Download: The latest Monthly MMI® Report – covering Aluminum and Steel markets!

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