Atmospheric plasma heading toward commercialization for carbon fiber manufacture

RMX Technologies (Knoxville, TN, US) reports that its atmospheric plasma technology, in development for four years, is close to commercialization and could boost oxidation capacity.

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RMX Technologies (Knoxville, TN, US) reports that its atmospheric plasma technology, in development for four years, is close to commercialization and could reduce oxidation energy consumption during carbon fiber manufacture by as much as 75%, and overall carbon fiber production costs by 20%. Rod Grubb, president, and Truman Bonds, VP of R&D, say that the technology, when used instead of conventional oxidation ovens to oxidize polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor, generates unique reactive chemistry.

Bonds explains that conventional ovens require a great deal of energy to use molecular oxygen in air to thermally and chemically stabilize PAN for the carboniza- tion process. Instead of molecular oxygen, the RMX system creates “other chemistries” from air as well as heat, to speed oxidation. “Our system is, basically, a chemistry generator.”

RMX has proven the technology in its lab over the past 18 months, using an oven with a 1-metric tonne/yr nameplate capacity. Grubb says RMX has worked with several unidentified carbon fiber manufacturers to test its process and reports that “good product” resulted — in some cases, properties exceeded those achieved with conventional ovens.

Grubb says RMX now has an industrial partnership with an established oxidation oven manufacturer (also unidentified), which will help RMX scale up the technology to a multi- hundred-metric-tonne model for commercialization. This, Grubb expects, will happen in the next 18-24 months.

Bonds says the cost and energy savings are achieved primarily because the atmospheric plasma process is faster (20-30 minutes total) than conventional thermal systems. Further, the RMX oven, as designed, will be one-third to one-half the length of a conventional oxidation oven, he notes, which will help reduce a carbon fiber line’s footprint.

While RMX is scaling up its oven, it will work with a European partner to develop a textile-grade PAN precursor optimized for plasma oxidation and targeted to manufacture a 500-ksi, 50K carbon fiber. This effort, Grubb says, might be commercial near the full-scale oven’s launch time.

Bonds credits Oak Ridge National Laboratories (ORNL, Oak Ridge, TN, US) for early R&D help, but emphasizes “we are in sole control of commercializing this technology and we want to make sure the marketplace understands that.”

For more information, email RMX Technologies’ Rod Grubb.

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