Issue Date: January 14, 2013
Advanced Materials: Carbon Fiber, 3-D Printing, Graphene To Make Inroads
Several exotic materials, including carbon fiber and graphene, will find new commercial applications in 2013. And growing use of three-dimensional printing will provide market opportunities for suppliers of other advanced materials.
The use of carbon fiber in cars is the big trend, says Ross Kozarsky, head of the advanced materials service at consulting firm Lux Research. Carbon fiber is already well established in the aerospace industry, thanks to the Boeing 787 airplane, now in mass production. But the auto market is far larger, Kozarsky points out.
The outlook is promising because major auto industry players are eager to find use for a material that is stronger and lighter than steel. In the past year, one partnership to develop carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics for cars was formed by Teijin and General Motors, and another brought together Dow Chemical and Ford Motor.
Three-dimensional printing is another technology that, as it enters the mainstream, is opening up a world of opportunity for makers of advanced materials. It can be used to custom manufacture small parts or by architects seeking a 3-D representation of a project. In a typical application, a special printer deposits a polymer, one thin layer at a time, to create a 3-D object based on a design stored on a computer. One company alone, Minneapolis-based Stratasys, claims to have developed well over 100 different materials or composites for use in 3-D printing.
Although the technology has a science-fiction quality, market watchers say it will soon become commonplace. The office equipment giant Staples has begun to install 3-D printers at its stores in Europe to make objects—architectural models, art, or prototypes—out of paper. But it’s a small step to using polymers, Kozarsky says.
Perhaps more tentatively than carbon fiber cars or 3-D printers, graphene-based products are also reaching the market. One example is a conductive ink launched by Vorbeck Materials for use in printed electronics. Other firms are also promoting commercial applications of graphene. Angstron Materials and XG Sciences sell a range of nanographene platelet materials for uses such as printing and batteries.
Makers of graphene-based materials could be accused of overhyping their products. The relatively small companies are often compared to firms that not long ago tried to make a business out of carbon nanotubes. But, coming on the scene later, graphene makers have had the chance to learn from past mistakes, Kozarsky says.
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