ORNL seeks licensees for its low-cost carbon fiber technology

After several years of material and process development, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is ready to license its carbon fiber manufacturing process, which could reduce production costs by up to 50%.

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UT-Battelle LLC, acting under its prime contract with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for the management and operation of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL, Oak Ridge, TN, US), is seeking commercialization partners to license a new method to produce industrial-grade structural carbon fiber and flame-retardant fibers from commercially available, low-cost, textile-grade acrylic fiber precursor materials. The ORNL Technology Transfer Office will accept licensing applications from companies committed to manufacture in the United States through May 15, 2016.

ORNL conducted a detailed analysis of the new carbon fiber manufacturing process compared to a published baseline for conventional carbon fiber production, examining manufacturing costs 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, energy, 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.

The process was developed in DOE's ORNL Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF), a semi-production scale facility open to industry and academic researchers, with funding from the DOE's Advanced Manufacturing and Vehicle Technology Offices. Licensees will have the opportunity to collaborate with ORNL researchers in the CFTF, subject to availability and funding.

Craig Blue, CEO of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI, Knoxville, TN, US), of which ORNL is a member, says ORNL's primary goal in developing this alternate precursor carbon fiber was to keep cost and energy consumption relatively low. “The key is, we’re looking at reducing energy, and energy and cost are directly correlated in such an energy-intensive process,” Blue notes. He says the lab has evaluated several sources of textile-grade PAN and that potential licensees will be provided access to material properties data associated with each when evaluating licensing options. Tow count of the ORNL fiber is 400,000-600,000k, Blue says, emphasizing that it is commodity grade and likely best suited, initially, for use in injection molding or sheet molding compound (SMC) applications. The automotive market is the primary target of this material.

ORNL will competitively select between three and five partners to commercialize this process. Partners will be selected based on their capabilities, business plans and commitments to manufacture in the United States. Blue says several firms have already expressed interest in licensing the technology. No additional licenses will be offered for at least five years.

Additional details about licensing may be found on the ORNL website at www.ornl.gov/partnerships/low-cost-carbon-fiber-process.

Contact Mike Paulus, director, technology transfer, ORNL, +1 865-574-1051, paulusmj@ornl.gov, for more information or to obtain a license application for this opportunity.

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