Carbon fiber is a strong, stiff, lightweight enabling material for improved performance in many applications. However, use of carbon fiber composites in cost-sensitive, high-volume industrial applications such as automobiles, wind energy, oil and gas, and infrastructure is limited because of today’s relatively high price. Current methods for manufacturing carbon fiber and carbon-fiber-reinforced composite structures tend to be slow and energy intensive. New, innovative manufacturing processes for low-cost precursor development and conversion technologies hold the key to reducing carbon fiber cost for energy applications. Similarly, innovative performance-focused materials and processes can potentially drive significant performance improvements for national security applications.
ORNL is presently leading a major DOE initiative to develop disruptive technologies for producing low cost carbon fiber. Major focal areas are (i) alternative precursors, (ii) advanced, energy efficient processes, and (iii) scaling for technology transition. ORNL processing capabilities range from single filament to tens of tons annually, with characterization capabilities at length scales from sub-Angstrom to approximately one meter.
The primary focus of ORNL’s carbon fiber research is disruptive cost reduction for industrial grade carbon fibers, with modest performance penalty being acceptable. This program includes efforts aimed at significant cost reduction for the highest performing standard modulus carbon fibers, with little or no performance penalty. Finally ORNL’s carbon fiber program does include a high performance element in which new performance levels are sought with cost being a secondary factor.
Oxidized fibers are converted into carbon fiber
The CFTF, with its 390-ft. long processing line, is capable of custom unit operation configuration and has a capacity of up to 25 tons per year, allowing industry to validate conversion of their carbon fiber precursors at semi-production scale.
The Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF) serves as a national test-bed for government and commercial partners to scale-up emerging carbon fiber technology. As part of ORNL’s DOE-funded Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, the CFTF serves as a hub for public–private partnerships in the emerging national network for innovations in manufacturing. One such partnership consisting of more than fifty companies, the Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium has formed in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The mission of the Consortium is to forge industry–government collaborations to accelerate the development and deployment of lower-cost carbon fiber materials and processes and create a new generation of strong, lightweight composite materials that will improve America’s competitiveness.
Carbon composite technology showcased at dedication of DOE's Carbon Fiber Technology Facility
Facilities and process equipment combine the flexibility to support development of new manufacturing concepts with capacity to produce full-scale demonstration components. New materials are typically benchmarked in conventional thermal processes. Process development is focused on advanced processing techniques such as electron-beam and microwave curing, robotic preforming, high performance filament winding, etc.