ORNL seeking US manufacturers to license new carbon fiber process; reduces cost up to 50% and energy up to 60%
Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have demonstrated a production method they estimate will reduce the cost of carbon fiber as much as 50% and the energy used in its production by more than 60%. After extensive analysis and successful prototyping by industrial partners, ORNL is making the new process available for licensing.
A detailed analysis of the new process compared to a published baseline for conventional carbon fiber production examined manufacturing cost of nine major process steps, starting with the precursor and pretreatment and finishing with surface treatment, sizing, winding, inspection and shipping. The analysis revealed the new process yields significant reductions in materials, capital and labor costs resulting in an overall manufacturing cost reduction of up to 50%. Details of the cost analysis will be shared with the prospective licensees.
The lower-cost carbon fiber produced by ORNL has demonstrated tensile strength, tensile modulus and strain to failure values exceeding 400 ksi, 40 Msi, and 1% respectively. These properties meet the performance criteria prescribed by some automotive manufacturers for high strength composite materials used in high-volume applications. A number of clean energy technologies will also benefit from this invention including wind turbine components and compressed gas storage tanks.
High cost has been the single largest roadblock to widespread use of carbon fiber as a strong, stiff reinforcement for advanced composites. ORNL’s new lower cost method, demonstrated at its Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, builds on more than a decade of research in the area. The researchers’ success promises to accelerate adoption of carbon fiber composites in high-volume industrial applications including automobiles, wind turbines, compressed gas storage and building infrastructure.
More than 90% of the energy needed to manufacture these advanced composites is consumed in manufacturing the carbon fiber itself. Reduction in energy consumption in manufacturing will enable earlier net energy payback—i.e., the energy savings gained in using products made from lighter-weight material compared to the energy consumed in making the material. Similarly, ORNL is working as a technology partner in IACMI – The Composites Institute – to enable the use of low-cost carbon fiber composites in a wide range of next-generation clean energy products, from offshore wind turbines that lower the cost of electricity to high pressure tanks for the storage of natural gas.
This accomplishment underscores the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s commitment to addressing our nation’s most pressing energy challenges, and the payoff could be significant. Automakers, consumers and the environment will realize tremendous benefits because of the investment just a few years ago in the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility.ORNL Director Thom Mason—
Carbon fiber is produced by converting a carbon-containing polymer precursor fiber to pure carbon fiber through a carefully controlled series of heating and stretching steps. In current commercial practice, the precursor—polyacrylonitrile (PAN)—is chemically modified and optimized to maximize the mechanical properties of the end product. The high cost of specialty precursor materials and the energy and capital-intensive nature of the conversion process are the principal contributors to the high cost of the end product.
Acrylic fiber of similar chemistry, however, is produced on a commodity basis for clothing and carpets—a high-volume product that costs roughly half as much as the specialty PAN used in the carbon fiber industry. ORNL researchers believed textile-grade PAN was a pathway to lower-cost carbon fiber, but laboratory-scale experiments couldn’t fully explore its potential at a production scale.
To provide that capability, DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing and Vehicle Technologies offices have funded research and operations at ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, a highly instrumented, semi-production scale carbon fiber conversion plant.
Extensive mechanical property tests have been performed on carbon fiber from the new process, and several auto manufacturers and their suppliers received quantities suitable for prototyping, with encouraging results.
Our R&D into process improvements and the extensive validation work at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility provide manufacturers and end-use industries the confidence needed to invest in large-scale manufacturing, knowing there will be a market for this material.—Gary Jacobs, ORNL’s interim associate lab director for Energy and Environmental Sciences
Companies, including licensees of the new method, will be able to use the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility to refine and validate carbon fiber manufacturing processes.
ORNL will accept license applications for this low-cost carbon fiber process through May 15. Licensing information for manufacturers in the US is available here.
The Carbon Fiber Technology Facility is supported by DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) and the Vehicle Technologies Office (VTO). AMO supports applied research, development and demonstration of new materials and processes for energy efficiency in manufacturing as well as platform technologies for the manufacturing of clean energy products. AMO also provides support for ORNL’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility, a public-private partnership to engage industry with national labs. VTO established the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility under the Recovery Act and supports its operations as well as research and development of a broad range of lightweight materials technologies to reduce vehicle weight and improve fuel economy.