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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

Oxi_graphic3
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.

NewOxidationOven_02.png
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.

Comments

HarveyD

Most of the time, there is a better and lower cost way.

This could make future lighter CF car bodies more affordable?

yoatmon

@ HD:
The question you raise in your post is not implied in the blog rather a definite conclusion.

Roger Pham

Make CF fuel tanks of FCEV's much cheaper and will make FCEV's cheaper. Will improve life-cycle of FCEV's advantage vs BEV even more. Great!

mahonj

OK, so carbon fiber is 20% (or is it 40%) cheaper.
Which applications will benefit most ?
Maybe aerospace more than cars, though there may be certain applications for automotive.

Obviously, making cars lighter makes them more efficient.
The question becomes - why is CF manufacturing so expensive in the first place? Is it because you have to lay out each piece one at a time and can't just stamp them out from a big sheet in a jig?

electric-car-insider.com

mahonj> ...can't just stamp them out...

That's part of it. Curing in an autoclave also takes a lot of time, so throughput suffers.

The tow and resins are expensive. There's a significant learning curve. The process requires an enormous amount of energy.

There are some good videos online that show BMW's process.

Thomas Pedersen

About the autoclave, it appears that the optimum is to stuff as many parts in there as possible, i.e. to design parts that can be stacked closely in an autoclave.

Also, choose parts that benefit the most from the high strength of carbon fiber.

Thirdly, choose parts that are the easiest to assemble, preferably parts that do not have many attachment points.

Car roofs appear to me to be fine candidates in many cases. Here, the cars' driving dynamics also benefit from greater lowering of mass farther from the center of gravity.

It seems that BMW have opted for the A and C pillars as well as the roof support. Those are compact items, far away from the center of gravity, and important for occupant safety, so good choices by the parameters suggested above.

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