New Carbon Fiber Research Facility Could Spell a Bright Future for Manufacturing

April 3, 2013

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One of the most important factors that will determine how well U.S. manufacturing companies will be able to compete in global markets will be the development of new and cheaper ways to use existing technologies. A lot of that research is being done at government labs and facilities, where a combination of public and private money will be needed to help keep the U.S. competitive.

One such material that may be key to manufacturing's future is carbon fiber, and last week in Tennessee a major step in carbon fiber development was taken when officials from the Department of Energy,  Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Ford Motor Co., and Dow Chemical launched the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Now open to U.S. manufacturers, this state-of-the-art facility is made possible by the Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composite Consortium, a collection of 40 private businesses, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and a $35 million grant from the Department of Energy.

If you're not fully conversant in carbon fiber, here's a little primer: Carbon fiber is a strong, stiff, lightweight material that may help American manufacturers dramatically lower the cost and improve the performance of fuel-efficient vehicles, wind energy, energy storage components, electronics, power transmission, and aerospace technologies, among others.

Of particular interest to those focused on the global economy,  carbon fiber has a tremendous opportunity to boost American competitiveness as the leading manufacturer of fuel-efficient gasoline and electric vehicles. Next-generation lightweight materials, such as carbon-fiber composites, could reduce passenger car weight by 50 percent and improve fuel efficiency by about 35 percent without compromising performance or safety.

The Energy Department estimates that through the strategic use of carbon fiber, automakers could cut the weight of cars and trucks by up to 750 pounds by 2020, which is a hugely ambitious goal.

Why hasn't carbon fiber taken off yet?

Currently, carbon fiber materials are more expensive and complicated to manufacture than more traditional materials like steel and aluminum. The Carbon Fiber Technology Facility will help industry and researchers develop better and cheaper processes for manufacturing these materials. It will produce up to 25 tons of carbon fiber each year, providing U.S. companies with enough material, infrastructure, and technical resources to test and scale-up different approaches to lower carbon fiber costs and efficient production.

I spoke with Lee McGetrick, the director of the new facility, the day after the ribbon-cutting, which was attended by politicians like Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.

McGetrick said the whole process of creating the facility only began about two years ago.

"After the stimulus package in 2009, we were told by the Department of Energy to come up with some project ideas that we might like to work on, and carbon fiber is something that has been becoming more and more important to us over the past several years," McGetrick said. "We had to spend about a year planning and developing our ideas and documenting what we'd like to do as far as forming a new facility, and then in March 2011 we got the green light to go ahead."

A look inside the new Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

A look inside the new Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The new facility looks very impressive; the 42,000-square foot facility features a 390-foot-long melt-spun fiber line to produce raw fiber materials and expects to add an additional conversion line in the coming months. The facility has attracted a consortium of more than 40 private and public sector partners, including Ford, Dow Chemical, and Volkswagen of America.

McGetrick said that the first immediate interest from the consortium and the new facility in carbon fiber is it's strength and lightweight capabilities when it comes to vehicles.

"When you think of a fiberglass bumper on a car, that's a composite, but it's a glass fiber and it's not very strong," she said. "But when you use a carbon fiber instead of a glass fiber, it's extremely strong and very lightweight. The idea (with cars) is to replace components that right now are made out of steel and aluminum, and that would give you a huge reduction in weight, and it's also stronger and more lasting."

Carbon fiber's ability to give automobiles much-improved fuel efficiency is obviously what has attracted Ford and Dow, partners in several carbon fiber projects. McGetrick went on to explain that if you put 100 pounds of carbon fiber in a vehicle, that's equal to 750 pounds of steel and metal.

Some of the "alternative" raw materials that the new facility will be working with are polyolefins, which is a type of plastic, and lignin, which is used heavily in the biofuels, pulp and paper industries as a glue that holds trees together.

"Right now it has little or no value to them, and they usually have a lot of lignin left over, and they just burn it up and use it as a low grade fuel," McGetrick said. "But if we can take the lignin and dry it into a powder, then we pelletize that powder into what looks like coffee beans, we melt and spin those into fibers, and convert that into carbon fiber."

In addition to assisting with vehicles, carbon fiber can also hopefully be used to advance the use and productivity of wind turbine blades; as of now, McGetrick said, current materials for turbine blades are limited in how long the blades can be; with carbon-fiber blades, the blade will be sharper and easier to use.

The goals of the facility at the start will be to provide the "scale-up" of models that until now haven't been created and replicated on a large scale. The new facility, with its large space, will be focused on getting more of a production scale, and building research projects that will try to prove that carbon-fiber materials can be made for lower cost.

"The research has been very promising, but it got to a point where our industrial partners said, 'We really want to invest in this, but we don't want to commit until we can see a larger-scale demonstration of carbon fiber benefits," McGetrick said. "Now, we have a one-of-a-kind facility that will invest heavily in carbon fiber research, and will have the flexibility to take on big projects."

Of course, when any U.S. manufacturing facility opens up, there is the question of how many jobs will be created. And here is where the news isn't necessarily so great for the carbon fiber facility. McGetrick said that 25 employees will work there at the start, but there are no guarantees of any future workers at the facility.

"There aren't a lot of people in the world who know how to do this, so training those 25 was something that was very important," McGetrick said.

However, McGetrick said she was confident that once the facility shows what can be done, jobs will be created elsewhere.

"With all these industrial partners we have, once we prove that carbon fiber can be useful by using alternative raw materials that are less expensive,what will happen in the U.S. is that big industry will spend the hundreds of millions dollars needed to take what is right now, a nice industry, to make it a high-volume, common, and accessible market," McGetrick said. "Once you get these carbon-fiber composites on a mass scale, you're going to see a lot of industries taking to it."

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