ORNL exclusively licenses plasma processing technology for carbon fiber production to RMX Technologies; 75% less energy, 20% lower cost
RMX Technologies and the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have signed an exclusive licensing agreement for a new technology that significantly reduces the time and energy needed in the production of carbon fiber. Combing these benefits with a low-cost precursor currently in development, the result can be a carbon fiber product that is 40% less expensive to manufacture than current commercial products.
The ORNL/RMX plasma processing technology is a new approach to the oxidation stage of carbon fiber production in which polymer materials are oxidized (or stabilized) before carbonization. During oxidation, the thermoplastic precursor is converted to a thermoset material that can no longer be melted. Oxidation is the most time-consuming phase of the multistep carbon fiber conversion process.
In conventional systems, it generally takes between 80 and 120 minutes for oxidation. We found a way to cut the time by a factor of 2.5 to 3 times, so we can process fiber in 25 to 35 minutes.—co-inventor Felix Paulauskas
|Overview of carbon fiber production. Source: RMX subsidiary 4MIO. Click to enlarge.|
The functions of the atmospheric-pressure plasma process include:
Generation of highly reactive (oxidative) yet short-lived chemical species to accelerate the precursor stabilization process.
Acceleration of these short-lived species to the precursor before they dissociate.
Thermal energy generation in close proximity to the tow band with low thermal inertia.
Active uniform distribution of thermal energy to the tow band.
Compared to conventional oxidation techniques, the team’s plasma oxidation technology reduces unit energy consumption by 75% and lowers production costs by 20%, while maintaining or improving the resulting carbon fiber quality. Plasma oxidation can be used to produce all grades of carbon fiber from low-end industrial to high-end aerospace grades.
|Rendering of a plasma oxidation oven system courtesy of RMX. Click to enlarge.|
Paulauskas developed the scientific concept for the plasma oxidation method eight years ago and worked with RMX Technologies to develop prototypes and demonstrate the technology at the lab scale. In 2014, RMX constructed a 1-ton plasma oxidation oven at its facility and transitioned from development to scaling and commercialization the following year.
We are commercializing this technology with our industrial partners to manufacture low-cost carbon fiber and create quality jobs. Through our partnership with ORNL, we have proven 75-percent energy savings, we make a quality fiber, and the equipment uses less than half the space. One of our carbon fiber production partners told us, ‘Plasma oxidation is not a science project anymore. The technology works.’—RMX Technologies president Rodney Grubb
Grubb said the company is preparing quotes with its commercial partner, C.A. Litzler, a manufacturer of carbon fiber production equipment, and expects to sell its first plasma oxidation oven in 2017. An RMX subsidiary, 4M Industrial Oxidation (4MIO), will jointly manufacture and license the technology with Litzler.
Commercialization of this technology can accelerate the use of carbon fiber in the auto industry and expand into other areas where strong and lightweight materials provide benefits.—Truman Bonds, RMX Technologies vice president for R&D
4MIO is currently collaborating with Dralon (Germany) to develop a textile grade precursor optimized for plasma oxidation that will achieve a minimum of 500 ksi tensile strength targeted at the industrial market.
DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office has funded ORNL’s research in plasma oxidation of carbon fiber.