The dawn of low-cost carbon fiber?

After several years of research and development work on its pilot scale carbon fiber manufacturing line, ORNL signaled that its efforts are ready to be paid off when it announced it is seeking licensees for its process.

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After several years of research and development work on its pilot scale carbon fiber manufacturing line, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL, Oak Ridge, TN, US) signaled that its efforts are ready to be paid off when it announced last week that it is seeking licensees for its process.

Relying primarily on textile-grade acrylic fiber as a precursor, ORNL has developed a 400,000-600,000k tow carbon fiber with tensile strength of 400 ksi, tensile modulus of 40 Msi and strain to failure of 1%. These values vary depending on the type of textile-grade PAN used, which means that a licensee can, effectively, pick the precursor that produces the fiber with the desired properties.

How carbon fiber with these properties might be applied is uncertain, but Craig Blue, CEO of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI, Knoxville, TN, US), which is helping ORNL license the process, suggests that the fiber might best be used in injection molding or sheet molding compound (SMC). The hope is that ORNL will, with a little more work, develop a fiber from the same precursor that has more robust properties, making it suitable for even more applications.

The open question right now is this: How much will carbon fiber cost that is produced from this lower-cost precursor? ORNL isn't saying, and one has to assume that the process variables from licensee to licensee will make the final product cost just as variable.

Still, is the elusive $5/lb carbon fiber within reach? Perhaps. And perhaps it doesn't matter. Perhaps the fact that viable carbon fiber produced from a relatively low-cost precursor is a victiory in and of itself. And perhaps, with the development and application of other optimizations in the carbon fiber manufacturing process, the cost and efficiency will be driven down and up (respectively) even more. 

In any case, it seems likely that we will see the fruits of this labor soon enough as licensees start running with the technology. ORNL is picking three to five licensees to commercialize the process, and Blue says more than one company has already expressed interest. Applications are being accepted through May 15 at www.ornl.gov/partnerships/low-cost-carbon-fiber-process.