Russia becoming a major carbon fiber manufacturer

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3/13/2013

The Carbon Fiber Revolution

By Mishter Gitter

Translated from Russian by J.Hawk

Russian industry is undergoing a carbon fiber revolution.
Alabug plant in Tatarstan is launching one of the world’s biggest production
lines for carbon fiber, which is one of the most promising materials of the 21st
century.

Engineers are obsessed with cutting weight, and here carbon
plastics are irreplaceable. The best types are six times stronger than
titanium, and five times lighter than high-tensile steel, and up to two times
lighter than aluminum. Carbon had long served in the defense industry, but now
it is used not only for stealth aircraft skins and space antennas, but also
brake discs, washers, engine parts, and concrete rebar.

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Statistically, aerospace industry use 20% of composites,
transportation and construction 40%, electronics and machinebuilding 15%.
Demand is rapidly growing. According to prognoses, global carbon fiber
production will increase from the current 90 thousand tons per year to 260
thousand. Carbon fiber prices are also very high, as there was a shortage a few
years ago which doubled the price. Right now Japan and Germany are the main
producers of carbon composite castings, but China is rapidly catching up. It is
a matter of state importance for China, which 
increased its production to 3 thousand tons during the 11th
Five-Year Plan which ended in 2012, and the 12th Five-Year Plan is
supposed to increase to 10-12 thousand tons.

Until recently Russia lagged behind. Those materials are
used in nuclear munitions and uranium enrichment centrifuges, therefore the
nuclear industry had an interest in developing carbon products. The Ministry of
Medium Machine-Building built three secret carbon fiber plants in the 1970s,
including the Argon in Saratov and ZUKM in Chelyabinsk. By 2008 they were
brought into a state holding company which belongs to Rosatom. Progress was
slow for a long time. Rosatom was in no hurry to expand because its needs were
limited, and the Russian industry procured no more than 350 tons of composites
per year, or .4% of world demand. The biggest “carbon fiber project” is still
the Energiya-Buran space launch system, which makes broad use of the material.

However, Rosatom could satisfy its own needs, and domestic
production was about 120 tons per year. But that was embarrassingly little. By comparison,
half the weight of an Airbus A350 and a Boeing-787 are composite materials,
aluminium—20%, and titanium—15%. Every such aircraft demands 30-50 tons of
carbon fiber. The future Russian MS-21 airliner which already secured 160
orders, will have composite wings. The military is not far behind, and the T-50
(PAK-FA) fifth-generation fighter is 25% carbon fighter, while its skin—70%.
The Air Force is expected to order 60 of these aircraft in the first batch,
requiring no fewer than 300 tons of composites.

So the demand will be enormous. The successor to the
Ministry of Medium Machine-Building took a long time to mature, but in the end
it turned out pretty well. Rosatom invested 4 billion rubles in the new Alabug
plant. The first line output is estimated at 1.7 thousand tons per year.
Construction began in 2012, and in March of 2015 the plant went on line producing
at a rate of 1.5 thousand tons per year. This is only the beginning, as there
are plans for 3-4 similar production lines which would enable Russia’s carbon
fiber production to reach 7-8 thousand tons per year. Russia will match China,
fully cover domestic industry needs, and start large-scale exports.

This may become a gold mine. One thousand tons of carbon
fiber costs approximately $80 million. It is more expensive than titanium of
which Russia is the world’s largest supplier (30 thousand tons in 2014).
Therefore we can soon expect a supplement to the current Titanium Valley (an
economic zone in Sverdlovsk Region) in the form of a Carbon Fiber Valley.

J.Hawk’s Comment: One of the factors that makes this
investment profitable is the drop in the value of the ruble. It might not have
made sense to make carbon fiber in Russia at the 2013 exchange rate. Now,
however, the weakness of the ruble is a major factor driving import
substitution in Russia and its re-industrialization. Would leaving the WTO
accelerate the process? There are pluses and minuses to the decision. However,
Russia tends to export “must buy” products like oil, natural gas, titanium, and
now also carbon fiber, which countries will buy regardless of WTO membership. 

One thing is for certain, however: an adoption of neo-liberal policy prescriptions, like the ones that are being foisted on Ukraine, would not have led to such a positive outcome. One can readily compare the effect of “European integration” on Ukraine’s economy to assess the impact of the two models of economic development. 

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