Manufacturing processes for carbon fiber composites (CFCs), have made significant strides in recent years. Proponents of carbon fiber (CF) have long heralded CFCs as the material of the future. From as early as the 1960s, scientists have been experimenting with this material, tantalized by its super strong, yet light-weight properties.  Living up to the promise of this space-age material has proven very difficult, however, as manufacturing constraints have historically prevented its widespread use. Nevertheless, carbon-fiber producers have made great advances recently, and we may finally be seeing carbon fiber’s move into the mainstream.

Carbon fiber has earned its exotic reputation due in large part to high production costs and long cycling times. At one time, only low-volume high-end luxury products like race cars and yachts could justify the exorbitantly high costs of CFCs. In the past, the aerospace and defense industries were typically the only regular users of CFCs. For example, almost 50% of the new Dreamliner jets from Boeing (BA - Free Boeing Stock Report) are composed of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRPs) and other composites. 

Recently, however, carbon fiber composites are beginning to turn up in everyday applications as well. Nike (NKE) currently carries a new Elite series of basketball sneakers that feature carbon fiber structural elements. Professional musicians are beginning to recognize the benefits of carbon-fiber instruments over their traditional wooden counterparts. Even simple items like the tripod, which traditionally is made of aluminum, are giving way to much lighter carbon fiber. Like their big-ticket brethren, these items often command hefty premiums. Regardless, the trend definitely shows CFC technology branching out to a much more diverse product pool.

As demand rises, profits from the carbon fiber segment should rise as well. Competition from newcomers will grow rather slowly, restrained by high costs of entry, and lengthy lead times necessary in bringing new plants online. The major players in Japan like Toray Industries Inc., Teijin Ltd., and Mitsubishi Corp. currently lead the pack in terms of global carbon-fiber production. Over on the U.S. side, companies like Zoltek (ZOLT), Hexcel (HXL), and Cytec (CYT) also control a fair share of the market. Together, these Japanese and American companies should continue to benefit from their dominance of the CFC market, as industrial and consumer demand speeds up in the coming years.

However, demand will quickly outstrip supply if carbon fiber eventually becomes the material of choice for mainstream products like everyday automobiles. As a result, companies in several countries have been ramping up efforts to take advantage of this potential coming shortage. This will form a positive feedback loop by stabilizing supply, which should in turn allow manufacturers to depend even more heavily upon this revolutionary material.

To attain these goals, carbon-fiber producers will be working on expanding existing production capacities and developing even more cost-effective means of production. Promising ideas like Zoltek’s lignin precursor can potentially lower prices and even lessen the production process’ overall environmental impact. As a renewable plant material, lignin is also a byproduct of the paper production process. Scientists have long been working to find an alternative to the expensive and carcinogenic polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor that currently is the industry standard. They may have found a solution in lignin, but only time will tell if it pans out.

More than one method exists to make carbon-fiber composites. Manufacturing processes at both the initial prepreg and late-stage fabrication levels are closely guarded corporate secrets. With the large investment dollars being poured into the development of these processes, intellectual property litigation will likely increase somewhere down the line, especially as overall profits rise, and the industry matures.

In particular, automotive companies are currently eager to seize upon the opportunity to offer mainstream carbon-fiber based cars, and many have formed strategic partnerships with companies from other industries in an effort to gain an R&D advantage over their competitors. For example, Ford (F) has partnered with DOW Chemical (DOW) in hopes of developing a workable solution that will help in meeting its 10-year goal of lowering their average vehicle weight by 750 pounds. Likewise, BMW has partnered up with companies like Boeing and SGL Group , and is planning on releasing their CFRP-based Megacity i3 and i8 lines sometime in 2013. With increasing demand for higher fuel standards from both governments and customers, the automobile industry should become a major consumer of carbon fiber – provided that adequate production supplies can be realized and sustained.

Notwithstanding this optimism, the problem of proper disposal may slow down carbon fiber’s ascent into the mainstream. The material’s unnatural durability also means that it has poor biodegradability. Moreover, patching up a carbon fiber component is not as simple as fixing a comparable metal part, as the CF version is much more likely to splinter and crack, often necessitating a complete replacement and disposal. As of now, no existing process allows carbon fiber to be recycled without a significant degradation in its strength properties. Without a workable recycling solution, the global movement towards greater environmental sustainability will undoubtedly balk at the idea of a new “Franken material” filling up the world’s landfills.

Touted as a green technology of the future, carbon fiber still has some unresolved issues that will hinder its complete adoption in the near term. However, most signs indicate that the technology is on the verge of breaking out in a big way, especially as production costs and cycling times continue to fall. Once companies become more adept at using this material, the development of better recycling techniques will undoubtedly accelerate. By that time, carbon fiber’s unmatched performance in the laboratory may be eclipsed only by its profit-generating capabilities.

At the time of this article’s writing, the author did not have positions in any of the companies mentioned.