Carbon fiber, a marvel of engineering
We are exploring the potential of carbon fiber as a stronger, and more durable, non-metallic material across a range of sectors.
- Elements Magazine
In 1860, Sir Joseph Wilson Swan invented carbon fiber to use in an early incandescent light bulb; the high heat tolerance of this novel material made it an ideal electrical conductor. By the early 1900s however, tungsten became the preferred light bulb filament, and carbon fiber went unutilized for roughly half a century.
Carbon fiber is typically made from oil, or a chemical called acrylonitrile – or both. The material has a high strength-to-weight ratio and suits industries that need lightweight components, a lower coefficient of thermal expansion, electrical conductivity, and chemical inertness.
We have already begun selectively deploying carbon fiber-based composite products in a variety of applications across our operations to improve performance and lower maintenance and operational costs. Carbon fiber may play an increasingly prominent role in the years to come, as the benefits have already made it a very popular material in the aerospace and renewable energy sectors.
In terms of strength and durability, carbon fiber performs exceptionally well—in even the most harsh and challenging environments. For example, as carbon fiber-based composite pipe is lighter than carbon steel, there is limited need for corrosion management and there are fewer inspection requirements during operation. Moreover, its lighter weight means less energy—and therefore less fuel—is necessary to transport it.
Carbon fiber is also used to construct lighter-weight automobiles, providing the automotive industry with increased fuel efficiency. Carbon fiber also offers a competitive advantage in the aerospace industry, in the manufacturing of wind turbine blades—as well as in building and construction.
Carbon fiber-based products often have a lower overall lifecycle cost than other materials. When it comes to the product’s lifecycle, we consider the project across its entire duration; including manufacturing, installation, transportation, and the entire operational life cycle.
Composites have already found a new role in the oil and gas industry as a replacement for carbon steel and alloy materials. We have installed over 10,000 kilometers of non-metallic pipe across our network to lower lifecycle costs and enhance corrosion resistance.
Additionally, non-metallic products such as downhole tubulars and valves have already been deployed in downhole applications and in-plant setting to address corrosion and ensure long-term integrity.
We have also begun employing non-metallic Thermoplastic Composite Pipe (TCP) in oil and gas applications. TCP pipe has been used as an onshore wellhead piping in oil wells, and is lighter weight, higher strength and has a higher-pressure capability compared to more conventional non-metallic composite pipes. It also offers better flexibility and higher fatigue resistance than steel.
This unique application, with a pressure rating of 3,000 pounds per square inch gauge (PSIG), decreases significant lead times while maintaining high dimensional accuracy. It also solves workover issues like refabricating spools when a well can't be restarted, which aids in the achievement of continuous output.
Carbon fiber has recently seen increased interest in the automotive industry.
Carbon fiber reinforced plastics are lighter than steel, and the low weight of carbon fiber composites saves energy, consuming less power, lowering the industry’s carbon footprint – something the automotive industry is now striving to achieve.
We’re working to develop new carbon fiber and polymer-based technologies in applications such as hydrogen storage tanks. The same properties that make carbon fiber such a marvel material in the automotive industry also make it ideal for aviation. In aerospace, for example, the wind trimmers on the wings are made from carbon fiber to give increased strength.
The building and construction sector has huge growth opportunities for non-metallic materials. Carbon fiber has the potential to enhance everything from composite rebars and carbon fiber reinforced polymer, to flooring and composite claddings. At Aramco, we utilize it in bridges, decking and cladding.
In 2018, we used glass Fiber Reinforced Polymer (FRP) rebar in a 21-kilometer-long storm water drainage channel in the Jazan Economic City project, the first largest application of its kind in the world. Carbon fiber reinforced rebar unlocks new horizons with its stiffness and the possibility of being thermoformed.
The packaging sector is another area where carbon fiber has potential, specifically in recycled carbon fiber materials. As part of a business effort to promote non-metallic materials, we have installed more than 7,500 plastic pallets across facilities, warehouses, and oil platforms.
Bringing the potential of non-metallic solutions to life
Our Company is leveraging its hydrocarbon resources and technology to advance the use of non-metallic materials solutions. The Company expects demand for more cost effective, durable, and sustainable materials to continue to increase over time.
We continue to pursue opportunities to collaborate with leading international research institutions and technology providers to innovate new non-metallic technologies and products. For example, Saudi Aramco Technologies Company (SATC) is collaborating with the Institute of Textile Technology in Germany to find ways of bringing to market cost-effective standard strength carbon fiber and increasing demand for polymer-based technologies for mass market applications. We are also looking for new ways to develop carbon fiber-based products to be used in the oil and gas and automotive industries.
We are also currently working with industrial leaders to localize carbon fiber and intermediate manufacturing in the Kingdom to serve the domestic and global markets. An example is the non-metallic affiliations to be established through the Industrial Investments Program (Namaat).
Carbon fiber has evolved from a discarded lightbulb filament to a material with significant potential. Our Company aims to become an early adopter of this technology, as we explore the potential for expanding the use of this cutting-edge material.