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Consortium Developing Carbon-Fiber Composites from Renewable Resources

6 March 2006

Agt_prototype
Prototype concentric tube atmospheric pressure plasma reactor for fiber oxidation from Atmospheric Glow Technologies.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), working as part of a consortium with Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler, are working to develop high-volume renewable sources of carbon fiber feedstocks in an attempt to lower the cost of carbon fiber composites.

Major cost reductions are needed in both the precursor materials and in the conversion processes that transform precursor into finished fibers to enable more widespread application of carbon-fiber components.

The cost of commercial-grade carbon fiber is currently between $8 and $10 per pound. The consortium’s goal is to reduce that to between $3 and $5 per pound, according to Bob Norris, leader of ORNL’s Polymer Matrix Composites Group.

At that lower price range, automakers could use approximately 300 pounds of composite per vehicle.

Carbon fiber weighs one-fifth as much as steel yet is just as strong and stiff, making it ideal for structural or semi-structural components in automobiles. Replacing half the ferrous metals in current automobiles could reduce a vehicle’s weight by 60% and fuel consumption by 30%, according to some studies.

The resulting gains in fuel efficiency, made in part because smaller engines could be used with lighter vehicles, would also reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions by 10% to 20%, according to ORNL.

Preliminary results of computer crash simulations show that cars made from carbon fiber would be just as safe—perhaps even safer—than today’s automobiles. Formula 1 racers are required by mandate to be made from carbon fiber to meet safety requirements.

Project work is proceeding along several paths.

  • ORNL, with the support of the University of Tennessee, is optimizing raw materials and spinning processes for alternative forms of carbon fiber precursors from renewable sources such as lignin from wood pulp and cellulose..

  • ORNL is working with Atmospheric Glow Technologies (a University of Tennessee spin-off) on developing an efficient carbon-fiber oxidation process, which would significantly increase production and lower cost of this raw material. Oxidation is the rate-limiting step in the conversion process. A rapid oxidation process could dramatically increase the conversion line throughput and appreciably lower the fiber cost.

    Atmospheric Glow specializes in atmospheric-pressure plasma processing. This is a technique to generate and to use plasmas in the open atmosphere instead of in a carefully controlled environment such as in inert gases and at very low pressures. The company’s One Atmosphere Uniform Glow Discharge Plasma (OAUGDP) electrically breaks down air at standard pressure and ambient temperatures, creating highly reactive chemical species that can be used for a variety of applications.

  • ORNL is also establishing a modular carbon fiber research pilot line to evaluate these new processes on a comparable basis against conventional industrial processes.

  • In addition, researchers also are working to develop techniques to allow high-volume cost-effective processing of carbon fiber, hybrid glass-carbon fiber and reinforced thermoplastic material forms. ORNL recently installed an advanced preforming machine that features a robotically actuated arm that chops and sprays fiber and a binder in powder form to create fiber preforms. After being set at elevated temperature, the preforms are injected with resin in a mold and consolidated under pressure to create the final part.

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March 6, 2006 in Fuel Efficiency, Vehicle Systems | Permalink | Comments (16) | TrackBack (1)

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Comments

Now we need to further the work on scratch resistant polycarbonates to replace safety glass in automobiles to further reduce the weight of them (and this would lower the center of gravity to give better handling and lessen the likely hood of rollovers).

Has anyone ever explored the possibility to use aerogel for windows?

$ now, but does it meet the material needs?

aerogel would be silly for car windows. There may be a good use in cars, but I cant think of one. Polycarbonate or windows once perfected would help safety in many ways, lower top weight, no glass pieces, better strength for holding up the roof in a rollover, some protection against objects flying into glass, projectiles etc.

I'm seeing costs around $0.85 per pound for steel. So if carbon composites (CC) were $4 per pound, this would enable the whole car to be made of CC, not just 300 pounds of it. Also, I would have thought manufacturing costs are less for CC?

Unlike steel and similar to fiberglass, carbon-fiber composites resist corrosion. The problem is delamination; the component shatters or cracks badly. And, while from a materials science perspective a carbon-fiber composite shell and Pope-mobile, polycarbonate windows would be cool, it does seem as if more efficient power trains and improved aerodynamics are higher priorities at present. In other words, where is my plug-in, flex-fuel Pope-mobile?

A lightweight carbon composite structure, polycarbonate window vehicle would lend itself to better drivetrains simply by being lightweight. Electric drivetrains would then be practical by having the range and acceleration demanded by the average US consumer.

Even if Carbon Fiber is cheap it will need to compete with steel's forming qualities: you can't stamp out carbon fiber components in a press in a few seconds.

Isn't carbon-fiber not recycleable at present? A huge consideration when virtually every other material is.

(a) The main reason for the high cost of carbon fibers is that their present manufacturing process is extremely energy-intensive. For a primer, see e.g.

http://www.zoltek.com/

In theory, this could be solved by locating carbon fiber production plants close to where energy is essentially free (both economically and in terms of greenhouse gases) because it is a waste by-product of oil production: "The World Bank estimates that the annual volume of natural gas being flared and vented is about 100 billion cubic meters, enough fuel to provide the combined annual gas consumption of Germany and France."

http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTOGMC/EXTGGFR/0,,menuPK:578075~pagePK:64168427~piPK:64168435~theSitePK:578069,00.html

One key issue is that Western companies are reluctant to make the neccessary capital investments in countries liable to raise taxes at the drop of a hat (e.g. Venezuela), disown them outright (e.g. Saudi Arabia) or suffer an insurrection (e.g. Nigeria).

(b) If there were a reliable source of carbon fibers at low, predictable prices, automakers would be keenly interested because of their high strength. BMW already has one model in series production whose roof is made from the material. It's also used extensively in F1 race cars, aircraft and tennis rackets.

Composites - regardless of the fiber type - are not drop-in replacements for other materials like steel. They have very different material properties and require completely different manufacturing methods. The aerospace industry has blazed the trail, but it would still take a long time before carbon fiber at any price could be used extensively in mass-produced cars.

Recycling of composites is also a major issue unless new fibers are so cheap you could afford to burn the used ones. That is definitely not the case for carbon fibers today.

One carbon fiber form is graphitic foam, a mixture of very short fibers and resin which could be injection or vacuum molded.
Replacing the steel in the unibody and subframes with carbon would only weigh 300 lbs vs 1200 lbs for steel. Being 4 times stronger than steel at $0.85/lb puts the break even point at $3.40/lb

Unlike widespread epoxy-filled composites, thermoplastic filled composites (PE for once) are easy and quick to form, and are fully recyclable.
Boeing just have built first in the world productional carbon-composite airliner - Dreamliner.

This technology is probably good for vehicle cell design. I just hope they don't use it for pannels as well. There is a reason carbon fibre is not used often in vehicles other then the cost of materials.
Unless I'm mistaken about the properties of these new CF composites, carbon fibre tends to shatter into shards more then bend, resulting in pannel bits going through the cabin and driver. CF is stronger and offers the benefits of reduced weight, but in collisions that require crumpling it has limited practicality.

Aluminum oxynitride anyone? I love this stuff
http://www.surmet.com/docs/Processing_ALON.pdf

This technology is probably good for vehicle cell design. I just hope they don't use it for pannels as well. There is a reason carbon fibre is not used often in vehicles other then the cost of materials.
Unless I'm mistaken about the properties of these new CF composites, carbon fibre tends to shatter into shards more then bend, resulting in pannel bits going through the cabin and driver. CF is stronger and offers the benefits of reduced weight, but in collisions that require crumpling it has limited practicality.

The issues of CF shattering have already been worked around.

Look at the McLaren F1, yes it is massivly exspensive (with an engine bay lined in gold how could it not be?) But it is a carbon fiber chassis and is EXTREMELY safe.

I've read of many accidents with these at very high speed, so far I've no read of the driver dying as a resault. (Mr Bean wrecked his at ~100mph, the kid from Maclom in the Middle wrecked his at some crazy speed, etc)

the F1 uses a deformable region of aluminum honeycomb front and rear for crumple zone, but mild steel could be used on the cheap as well.

Further I think that the production price would be further offset by being able to offer smaller simpler engines (read: cheaper) that offer the same emissions and performance but with better MPG. Alternately the first company to decide to make a bold leap to mostly CF construction, will draw a LOT of publicity, as well as enthusiests and etc.

If the price can be brought down that much, it'd really be foolish not to take advantage of it.

I highly doubt this claim of $10/lbs for cost... even from wholsale manuf the carbon cloth is well over $50/Lbs not even counting epoxy/resin.

Cost of production, not wholesale price.

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