In August 2011, Oak Ridge National Lab brought together a group of scientists, businesses and manufactures to expand the use of carbon fiber. Next month, ORNL will move that research to a new full scale production facility.
Carbon fiber is a high tech material that is very strong and light. But it is also very expensive. This new facility could make it cheaper.
"The whole point is to drive down the cost of carbon fibers, which typically you see in airplanes and missiles and high end stuff to get it into everyday applications such as automotive, wind turbines and to make it a more commercially viable product," Carbon Fiber Technology Center Director Lee McGetrick said.
The process starts with a synthetic fiber. Those fibers are heated and stretched leaving behind mostly carbon in long thin strands.
"About half the cost of carbon fiber is driven by the raw material itself, so we're experimenting with raw materials including lignin, which is a plant based," McGetrick said.
Researchers will experiment with new synthetic fibers already spun into strands or they can make their own fibers.
"What makes it different from a commercial plant is the ability to spin our own precursor fibers here in line and feed them directly into the process."
85 percent of the world's carbon fiber is made outside the U.S. One goal of this plant is to grow manufacturing here. Two leading U.S. companies are already on board to run experiments.
"Working with Dow Chemical to produce the carbon fibers out of polyolefin and Ford as the end user who will take this lower cost fibers, prototype parts to put in vehicles," McGetrick said.
Those Ford vehicles should use less gas.
"You can replace steel components on vehicles with carbon fiber composite components greatly reducing the weight of the vehicle obviously making the vehicle more fuel efficient."
Saving energy and growing the U.S. economy is the primary mission of the Oak Ridge National Lab.
"This is a perfect example of a Recovery Act project that will result in large scale commercialization of new advanced manufacturing technologies in this country creating jobs which is exactly what the Recovery Act was designed to do," McGetrick said.
The research facility cost $35 million. Full-scale production is scheduled to start on January 7, 2013.