Aerospace was one of the first industries to adopt carbon fiber, thanks to the material’s immense weight-saving properties. Within the oil and gas industry, carbon fiber is used to reinforce pipelines and casing, reducing corrosion and the environmental impact of costly replacements. Recreational industries, which produce goods such as sports equipment and musical instruments, have adopted carbon fiber as a more stable and lightweight alternative to traditional wood and other materials, while in luxury cars and motorsports it is used to make their vehicles lighter, safer, and more fuel efficient.
However, the manufacturing process of carbon fiber is difficult and relatively expensive, and there has been slow adoption across some mass-market sectors. Lowering the cost could therefore make carbon fiber a viable solution for non-high-end industries, such as passenger cars, as well as a wide variety of clean energy applications. In tandem with relentless introduction on new low-cost carbon fiber composite products by several technology providers, Aramco is working to alleviate the concern of high cost carbon fiber material through our research initiatives.
What is Aramco doing?
The main reason carbon fiber is so expensive is that the production process consumes a tremendous amount of energy. At the moment, furnaces are required to reach temperatures of 2,730°F (1,500°C) to purify the carbon fiber.
Rendering carbon fiber or carbon fiber-based products more affordable brings forward an opportunity for Aramco to explore and act as a major force behind creating and supporting the development of new markets for this specific commodity.
We are working with several partners to reduce the consumption of energy needed for the production of carbon fiber, aiming to lower its cost of manufacturing of certain grades by 50 percent. If this is achieved, it could accelerate the adoption of carbon fiber beyond high-end sectors.
We are also seeking other ways to bring cost-effective carbon fiber to market, by collaborating with the Institute of Textile Technology in Germany to increase demand for polymer-based technologies for mass-market applications.
How does Aramco use carbon fiber in its operations?
We have been using carbon fiber-based composite materials since 2017. They are now used in multiple applications across the Company’s operations—including pipelines and repairing downhole casing.
Thermoplastic Composite Pipes
Wellhead risers, a type of piping system, are key to unlock the newly drilled oil well on time, but often face longer fabrication time as it takes place after the rig leaves the site. In 2018, we deployed a carbon fiber-reinforced, bonded nonmetallic pipe—called a Thermoplastic Composite Pipe (TCP)—as a wellhead riser. The TCP has a higher-pressure capability than traditional nonmetallic composite pipes or legacy steel-based pipelines. It also has improved flexibility and thermal insulation, and higher resistance both to permeation and the effects of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.
We can face high costs controlling the effects of metallic corrosion on either our surface pipelines or downhole casing. In 2018 we started using carbon fiber to carry out repairs as a way to rehabilitate and restore the structural integrity of surface casing caused by corrosion.
Reinforced thermosetting resin
Transporting refined products such as diesel and petroleum through non-conductive nonmetallic pipes can create an electrostatic build-up which cannot be dissipated along the length of the pipe. We trialed a carbon fiber-embedded reinforced thermosetting resin (RTR) pipe in 2020, which has succeeded in reducing charge build-up and improved overall system integrity.
A look to the future: Boosting carbon fiber production in Saudi Arabia
As part of our downstream strategy of becoming a global leader in petrochemicals, we are collaborating with Total and chemical company INEOS in Project Amiral. This will supply propylene to a new plant being built by INEOS in Jubail, on the Arabian Gulf. Propylene is used in the manufacture of acrylonitrile—an essential building block for many plastics, including PAN, the most commonly used raw material for carbon fiber. INEOS’s acrylonitrile products will enable the production of PAN at a lower cost, which will, in turn, lower the cost of carbon fiber.
Recognizing the importance of carbon fiber materials to the Kingdom, Aramco’s Carbon Fiber Manufacturing Investment team is currently working with potential international partners to establish a carbon fiber manufacturing facility through the Industrial Investments Program (Aramco Namaat) in Saudi Arabia. Availing carbon fiber will expand and accelerate the deployment of nonmetallic products across many industrial sectors while resolving several technical challenges and supporting localization and job creation.