Low Cost Natural Gas in the Carbon Fiber Industry

Harper International, headquartered in Buffalo, NY, is an employee-owned company that specializes in thermal processing systems. It is a major partner in carbon fiber scale up operations.

The company mainly focuses on innovative, complex and sophisticated material processing, complex gas-solid interactions, continuous and batch processing, accurate atmospheric controls and high purity requirements.

Harper International offers the following multi-disciplined engineering services:

  • Industrial
  • Electrical
  • Mechanical
  • Chemical
  • Ceramic
  • Process and Integration

This article explores the impact of electric and natural gas costs and their market dynamics and volatility on the carbon fiber production in present and near-future scenarios.

Economics Framework

Fluctuations in worldwide utility prices can pose a commercial risk and result in unpredicted costs during production. This issue can be resolved by using multi-functional and well-planned plant equipment for producing carbon fiber plants. Such plants can be deployed anywhere across the globe.

Figure 1 shows a model of estimated cost structure of carbon fiber manufacturing. Utilities account for anywhere between 5% and 10% of overall production costs. This is only for carbonization production.

Cost of manufacturing

Figure 1. Cost of manufacturing (CF) based on 1500 TPY 12k (90min, 90s, 90s RT).

Image Credit: Harper

Energy Markets Review

Figure 2 shows the global electric prices.

Estimated 2014 industrial electric prices

Figure 2. Estimated 2014 industrial electric prices (cents/Kwh).

Image Credit: Harper

Fluctuations in the global electric prices can be attributed to the following factors:

  • Cost differs by locality owing to the availability of infrastructure, energy, corporate structure, and cost regulations
  • Cost often differs from country to country, for instance industrial electric rates range between $0.03 and $0.15 by state in the U.S.
  • There is a global trend of using innovative environmental standards and changing of inputs, that is migrating from coal to natural gas

Figure 3 shows the global gas markets.

World LNG estimated November 2013 landed and hub prices

Figure 3. World LNG estimated November 2013 landed and hub prices ($US/mmbtu).

Image Credit: Harper

Following are the key takeaways of global gas markets:

  • Utility rates mostly depend on the infrastructure, resources and industrial policy of a country
  • Although inconsistencies exist in global gas pricing, considerable production is emerging across the globe

Europe Gas Trade

Europe is one example of the planned infrastructure for natural gas. A number of transport systems are being planned or developed which would considerably boost the availability of natural gas across Europe (Figure 4).

Europe gas trade

Figure 4. Europe gas trade: 2012 -2013.

Image Credit: Harper

Primary Energy Mix by Country: United States

Since the 1950s, petroleum has dominated the US energy mix, even though the percentage contribution to the mix has been steadily reducing since the late 1970s. Coal shares a similar story.

However, natural gas is increasingly gaining importance not only in energy production, but also in electricity. By 2015, this gas is estimated to contribute 26.5% to the energy mix (Figure 5).

Primary energy mix in the US

Figure 5. Primary energy mix in the US.

Image Credit: Harper

Primary Energy Mix by Country: Germany

Germany depends on coal and petroleum for its energy and electricity. Renewable energy and natural gas are well placed to substitute these fuels in the near future. In addition, environmental concerns will continue to reduce the country’s dependency on coal (Figure 6).

Primary energy mix.

Figure 6. Primary energy mix.

Image Credit: Harper

Primary Energy Mix by Country: China

Coal is a leading energy source in China and is anticipated to level off gradually. At the same time, usage of natural gas, oil, and renewable energy will increase significantly (Figure 7).

Primary energy mix in China.

Figure 7. Primary energy mix in China.

Image Credit: Harper

Primary Energy Mix by Country: Japan

Following Fukushima, natural gas has considerably replaced the displaced nuclear energy. When Japan revives its nuclear sector, it will be exciting to see the changes in the petroleum and coal industries.

In addition, the use of natural gas for temporary replacement energy may lead to reduce costs and increase availability of natural gas in future (Figure 8).


Figure 8. Japan's net electricity generation by fuel, 2000-2013 terawatthours (TWh).

Image Credit: Harper

Natural Gas and Electric Prices in North America

When compared to oil and petroleum, prices of natural gas have remained stable in North America. New sources along with enhancements in the transport system have led to an increased capacity and sustained stabilization of prices.

The cost of electricity continues to increase but at a modest rate (Figure 9). Generally, electric prices are considerably higher than gas. However, major price variations exist from region to region.

Natural gas, electric and gas prices

Figure 9. Natural gas, electric and gas prices in North America.

Image Credit: Harper

Electrical Fluctuations

Utility costs change throughout the year and even fluctuate during the day, as shown in Figure 10.

Electrical fluctuations

Figure 10. Electrical fluctuations.

Image Credit: Harper

Some of the observations made were in carbon fiber production, utilities are a major cost factor; utility prices at a global scale are random and need to be changed; and volatility is obvious on all major continents.

These issues can be overcome by reducing risk via equipment design, and cost strategy should also be factored. In addition, pressure continues in terms of cost savings to support more adoption in aerospace and automotive applications.

Impact on Carbon Fiber Production

Gas-fired carbon fiber production solutions can play a major role in carbon fiber production and help improve the volatile dynamics of the energy market.

Combustion System Design Options - LT Furnace and Gas Burner

Burner Types

  • Hot air
  • Cold air
  • Self recuperative

Flue Arrangement

  • Individual zone
  • Charge end
  • Discharge end

Heat Recovery

  • Preheat atmosphere gases
  • Preheat combustion air

A number of options are available for burner style, heat recovery, and flue arrangement that affect efficiency. However, it is possible to configure efficiency for a particular line.

Major takeaways of the LT furnace gas vs. electric operational cost are as follows:

  • When compared to electricity, energy consumption for natural gas is higher and this can be attributed to the flue loss of gas fired systems. It is possible to reduce these flue losses using different heat recovery options.
  • There is a reward with respect to utility cost savings which can be noteworthy.
  • Savings for approximately 1500 TPY LT system are significant. These savings had to be assessed in consideration of future trends in utility cost and at the existing rates of the installation location.

Gas-Fired LT Furnaces

Harper has been developing gas-fired systems for many years. These LT furnaces have the required uniformity to meet the complex needs of customers (Figure 11). The company has determined thermal uniformity for systems measuring 3m wide, with outstanding results.

Such results were possible thanks to the thoughtful selection of burner, flue gas management, arrangement and setup. All these factors play a key role in ascertaining the system’s performance.

Gas-fired LT furnaces.

Figure 11. Gas-fired LT furnaces.

Image Credit: Harper

Oxidation Ovens- Gas/Electric

Ovens need significant amount of energy than that of a LT system and thus consume considerable energy in the carburization line. It is therefore important to choose the best value in energy to achieve long term success.

In case of an oxidation oven, significant savings can be achieved for approximately 1500 TPY LT system. However, this has to be assessed in consideration of future trends in utility costs and at existing rates of the installation location.

Hybrid Oven

A hybrid oven offers the following benefits:

  • Faster to start-up
  • Reduced down time
  • Increased availability with dual utility option
  • Options to choose fuel based on the prevailing cost
  • A universal plant and can be deployed anywhere in the world


Although the market dynamics and volatility of electric and natural gas can impact the carbon fiber manufacturing line, there is a greater availability of natural gas across the globe. This low cost natural gas can be used in the carbon fiber manufacturing industry to sustain a competitive advantage. Moreover, the cost of energy can be potentially reduced in gas fired systems.

About Harper International

Harper International is a global leader in complete thermal processing solutions and technical services essential for the production of advanced materials. From concept to commercialization, from research scale to full production line operations, Harper is perpetually on the cutting edge of the most innovative furnace and oven designs in the world. For decades, we have pioneered some of the most unique, customized systems available, with a focus on processing materials at high temperatures up to 3000°C and in non-ambient atmospheres.

Harper serves advanced, cutting-edge material markets including Fibers & Filaments, Powders, Metal Oxides, Technical Ceramics, Rare Earths, Graphene, Energy Device Materials and Nuclear Materials. Our support to these emerging industries begins in early stages of research and development, whether at corporate R&D centers, universities, government institutions, or start-ups. Harper is a partner through the entire development process assisting in the scale up and commercialization of advanced materials that will change our everyday lives.

This information has been sourced, reviewed and adapted from materials provided by Harper International.

For more information on this source, please visit Harper International.


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