Strategic science

Leveraging R&D to benefit American manufacturers

Carbon fiber composites are superstrong, super-light materials that manufacturers would swap for
high-strength materials like steel in a heartbeat—except for one problem. They’re also super-expensive.

Engineers estimate that if CF could be produced for $5 to $7 a pound instead of the current $10 to $15, the typical car would include 200 pounds of the stuff—replacing twice its weight in steel and increasing fuel efficiency.

Thinking ahead

ORNLís 400-foot-long Carbon Fiber Technology Facility is scheduled to
be in production by early 2013. Photo: Jason Richards

ORNLís 400-foot-long Carbon Fiber Technology Facility is scheduled to be in production by early 2013. Photo: Jason Richards

So that’s what ORNL is trying to do—find a way to pare up to 50 percent of the cost from the CF production process and open up a potential market that has been estimated at 300 million pounds per year, just for automobiles—if the current price for CF can behalved. That’s three times the current market, and that’s what got Tom Rogers and other folks at ORNL thinking about developing a commercialization strategy for CF.

“We believe that a combination of new materials and new processing technologies can lower the cost of CF by as much as 50 percent,” says Rogers, director of Industrial and Economic Development at the laboratory.“We’re building a $35 million pilot plant to help commercialize new materials and processing techniques and put low-cost CF into the hands of industry. This new facility is the result of a huge team effort on the part of laboratory staff and our industrial partners.”

The 400-foot-long Carbon Fiber Technology Facility is being outfitted with state-of-the-art processing equipment and is scheduled to be producing CF by early 2013.

As plans to build this pilot plant began to take shape, Rogers noted that quite a few companies showed an interest in the facility’s progress. He knew some of them from their connections to past CF research at the laboratory but was surprised by the number of calls the lab was getting from other organizations interested in investigating new materials, testing CF processing equipment, and developing new products using CF produced by the facility.

“We decided to capitalize on that interest,” Rogers recalls, “by sponsoring agroup to help private industry and government agencies work together to accelerate CF technology.” The Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium now has several dozen members, like industrial heavy hitters, including Dow, Ford and Volkswagen.

“We’re partnering with a number of those companies,” Rogers says, and in June the Department of Energy announced a$9 million award in support of Dow and Ford’s efforts to develop a lower-cost carbon fiber production process.

“Our goal is to build what we call a regional manufacturing ‘cluster’ around this activity.” A successful cluster includes not only manufacturers, but also a trained workforce, so the laboratory has worked with Roane State Community College to create the Advanced Materials Training and Education Center on the ORNL campus.

“AMTEC is training people for the jobs we hope to create,” Rogers says. “Our challengeis not only to use our research and development resources to attract new companies to the area, but also to make sure we have a trained workforce to fill the jobs that new businesses will create. When a manufacturer decides to locate in the region, by the time they have a plant built, we will have a trained workforce ready to go. ORNL has a clear R&D lead in this area, and we can use it to benefit the entire region.”

Pilot plant

Materials scientist Cliff Eberle emphasizes that the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility represents the fruition of decades of research by dozens of ORNL researchers. The pilot plant will eventually house two separate production lines. The first production runs will be used to test new CF “precursors”—the raw materials for CF production. To date, most CF has been made using a petroleum-based material called PAN (polyacrylonitrile). The pilot plant will work with PAN, but it will also add some newer materials into the mix, including polyethylene,the material plastic grocery bags are made of, as well as lignin, a plant-based by-product of paper manufacturing.

Initially, all of the testing will be done using tried and true processing techniques. “Because we are working with several new precursors that are not well understood, we want to use processes that are well understood, so we can control the quality of the product and the process,” Eberle says.

Similarly, when ORNL’s carbon fiber R&D team begins to apply advanced processing techniques, such as using microwave-created plasmas to heat materials, they will try them out first using PAN because the behavior of this time-tested material is better understood than that of newer precursors.

“Once we understand both the precursors and the advanced processing techniques fairly well,” Eberle says, “we’ll put them together on a production line. However, right now, we’re doing those kinds of experiments on a smaller scale in the laboratory. For example, we’re seeing how polyethylene behaves in a microwave chamber and what happens to lignin in a plasma field.”

The price is right

The answers to processing-related questions like these are critical to promoting wider use of CF in manufacturing. If CF processing costs can be reduced, so can the cost of the finished product. Obviously, manufacturers will use more CF at $5 apound than at $7 a pound, so processes that are faster, less expensive or less energy intensive are likely to spur manufacturers to incorporate more CF into their products.

By the same token, the cost of raw materials also affects manufacturing practices. “Basically the more affordable the raw material becomes, the more companies show an interest in picking it up. That’s why we’re looking at polyethylene and lignin,” Eberle says. “This is true both for structural products for cars, planes and bridges, as well as for CF used in nonstructural applications, such as thermal insulation for high-temperature industrial furnaces.”

Recapturing the lead

The ultimate goal of ORNL’s efforts in the area is to significantly reduce the cost of CF and to put thousands of pounds of new, low cost materials into the hands of American manufacturers, so they can explore how this technology can be applied in the broader market. “This will cause the market to grow,”Rogers says, “and that means more American manufacturing jobs will be created.”

Eberle points out that carbon fiber technology was invented in the United States.

“We didn’t capitalize on that advantage,” Eberle says, “so Japan took the lead in CF manufacturing and still dominates the market today. Now, if we leverage our R&D and business resources, we have the opportunity to recapture the lead in an industry that is important both to our economy and our energy independence. If we want to put this technology to work for the nation, we have to deploy it in the commercial arena.” —Jim Pearce