Toray Industries Inc, a major maker of textiles and plastics, is expanding its carbon fiber line, wooing airplane and car manufacturers in the process.

Made from acrylonitrile, carbon fiber has the potential to be stronger but lighter than steel when heated and applied with epoxy resin.

Tokyo-based Toray Industries already counts itself among the world’s largest carbon fiber producers, supplying materials for satellites, racing cars, golf clubs and natural gas tanks.

“We are currently stepping up efforts to boost production of carbon fiber for airplanes in France,” said a Toray spokesman who asked not to be named.

Toray, which now produces a combined 7,300 tons of carbon fiber a year in France, the United States and Japan, will start up a new production line at its plant in France in August that, after an investment of about 8 billion yen, will be able to turn out some 1,800 tons a year.

The new line will primarily serve Airbus Industries, which wants to launch its A380 Airbus superjumbo jet in 2006. Toray plans to supply about 35 tons of carbon fiber per jetliner, to be used in the fuselage and wings.

“The new production line will dramatically increase our French plant’s output of carbon fiber from the current 800 tons a year,” the spokesman said.

Toray also hopes to land a new contract with Boeing Co. of the United States in line with the 7E7 jetliner, which is slated to go into service in 2008.

Toray entered the carbon fiber business in 1971 but only received orders of under 1 kg per airplane in the 1970s and 1980s, the spokesman said.

“Times have changed,” he said. “Airplane manufacturers are now using more and more carbon fiber.”

A key point came in 1994 when Toray won a contract to supply Boeing with about 5 tons of carbon fiber for each of the firm’s 777 jetliners, the spokesman said. The deal helped position Toray in the high-growth field, he said.

Toray in 1997 established Toray Carbon Fibers America for the production of carbon fiber in the U.S., mainly for Boeing, the spokesman said.

Toray is also expanding in the automobile sector, which it believes has huge potential.

The firm has already developed carbon fiber axles for Mitsubishi Motors Corp. that are stronger and lighter than ordinary axles. MMC introduced the axle in its Pajero sport utility vehicle in 1999.

Since then, Toray has provided carbon fiber components for other carmakers, including Nissan Motor Co. and Mazda Motor Corp.

“Automakers are using our carbon fiber in their flagship models,” the spokesman said.

He said Toray does not disclose its carbon fiber sales, but he said the company posted 3.5 billion yen in group profits of newly growing products, including carbon fiber, for the year that ended last March, up 12.4 percent from the previous year.

Given that Toray boasts some 1 trillion yen in consolidated annual sales, carbon fiber makes up just a small fraction of the total.

“We believe, however, that carbon fiber will become one of our most important business fields, in light of its high market potential,” the spokesman said.

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