Composite Materials: A Russian Perspective

Alexander Tyunin, CEO of UMATEX GROUP (Composite Materials Division of Rosatom)

Over the recent years, annual growth of the composite market averaged 11%. It is one of the fastest expanding industries worldwide. To compare, the steel industry experiences only a 2% annual growth. The composite materials scope of application has also expanded immensely. Just 30–40 years ago, they were used strictly in the space industry. The aircraft industry developed interest for these materials 20–25 years ago. And now, dozens of new composite materials are finding their way into households every year.

The world consumes 141 thousand tonnes of carbon-based composites annually. In monetary terms, this accounts for nearly USD 21 billion. According to experts, the market will grow more than twofold by 2025 and reach 335 thousand tonnes, or USD 48 billion.

For reference
Composite materials are materials made from two or more constituent materials that, when combined, produce a material with properties different from those of the individual components.

The oldest composite materials are plywood and concrete. When mentioned in this text, “composite materials” means “polymer composites”.

Russia comprises less than 1% of the global market, with annual composite material consumption at 800 tonnes (approx. USD 200 million). We anticipate the Russian market will reach 6 thousand tonnes, or more than USD 1 billion, by 2025. This means that Russia is expected to outperform the global market in terms of annual growth rates. Five key industries will drive the market: aircraft engineering, pressure vessel manufacturing, wind power engineering, construction, and sporting goods.

The Global Market

We can outline several global trends by industry:

1) Aircraft manufacturing. Major global players Airbus and Boeing use more than 50% of composite materials in their flagship aircraft. The aviation composites market is estimated to be USD 12.8 billion per annum. More importantly, it is expected to double by 2025 given extensive fleet renewal.

In Russia, the prospects are excellent as well. The flagship MC-21 airliner, which is currently being tested, contains 30% of carbon-based composite materials. In addition, Russia and China are jointly developing the CR929 wide-body airliner.

2) Wind power engineering is one of the fastest developing industries in the world, with China as its current leader. Composite materials are widely used in wind turbine construction. A recent trend in wind engineering is the focus on boosting wind turbine capacity by increasing the mast height and blade size.

The highest and most powerful wind turbine thus far was built in Scotland and commissioned in 2018. With a capacity of 8.8 megawatts, it has a blade spread of 160 meters (80 meters for each blade) and is 191 meters high. Its blades are 100% made of composite materials. Most of them are fiberglass composites (90%), while the carbon-based composite stiffener makes for the remaining 10%. The stiffener enables the blade to be longer, lighter and therefore more efficient.

3) Automobile manufacturers have become major consumers of carbon-based composite materials, with a steady use growth attributed to the last 6–7 years. This segment is led by premium-class cars, but mass-market cars are catching up as well. Carbon-based composites are used as interior trim materials and, primarily, to construct load-carrying structures. The market of car composites totals nearly USD 2.8 billion annually.

Major car manufacturers, such as Ford, KIA and Hyundai, study composite materials and are preparing to use them serial production.

4) The sports industry is another key consumer, which is important for us. Hockey sticks, skis, snowboards and fishing rods are all made of composite materials, and the industry is growing at a rapid pace. The size of this market segment is USD 1.8 billion.

Russian Specifics

The industries mentioned above are inconceivable without composite materials. What other segments can be drivers of the composites market?

In Russia, the gas-powered vehicle development program presents a lucrative opportunity. On a global scale, the trend is towards electric cars, but Russia also pays significant attention to gas. The gas-powered vehicle development program provides for the use of composite high-pressure vessels that allow for a large reduction of logistics and fuel expenses and a longer driving range.

Construction is another market driver. This industry is fundamental for the development of composite materials. Russian companies have engineered a broad range of composite products for the construction industry, including construction rebars, construction profiles, and prefab road surface blocks that can be repeatedly assembled and disassembled (dozens of cycles). Another area of application is external reinforcement systems allowing for cheaper and faster capital repairs of bridges, beams, foundations and other structures as opposed to conventional approaches. In addition, using composites in repair work extends the service life of buildings and structures by 30–50 years. When calculating costs, we should take the full lifecycle into account. At first, composite materials look more expensive, but they do not dilapidate, serve for up to 100 years and make buildings and structures cheaper in maintenance. As a result, we can save up to 20–30% over the full lifecycle.

We see shipbuilding as the third most promising industry. We are now developing composite barge covers. They are 2–2.5 times more expensive than steel covers, but they are corrosion-resistant and much lighter – which means that barges can carry more cargo. This solution pays off, and businesses are interested in it. Russian composite materials are shipped to Italy, where they are used in yacht building. Russian companies also produce vessels that are 100% made of composite materials. These products enjoy high demand globally and, in particular, are exported to Asian countries.

Medicine is our fourth point of focus. Two local companies, Motorika and Nanotechmed, produce high-tech composite implants and prostheses.

Although the Russian market seems to be small, I am sure that its future is bright. Russian-produced composites can play a major role on the global market.

We are still behind market leaders, but they are not far away, and we can bridge that gap. I am sure that we will be among industry leaders in 5–6 years and will be able to set industry trends. What matters is thinking outside the box.