Carbon fiber is going to be a game-changer in the manufacturing world. With this material, cars could be made lighter, wind turbines made more efficiently, and various American products be made stronger. Yet, this type of material has been long regarded as too expensive for large-scale use. That is until a recent scientific breakthrough has made large quantities of carbon fiber more affordable.
In a recent study conducted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, scientists found a way to produce carbon fiber with a low-cost material. The new material is derived from an acrylic fiber that is commonly found in household carpets and most sock brands. This acrylic fiber is less expensive then the specialty fiber that used to be necessary to create durable carbon fiber. Typically carbon fiber is produced by taking a carbon containing fiber to a pure carbon fiber by a process of heating and stretching through high-temperatures. The carbon containing precursor is known as polyacrylonitrile or PAN, and is chemically modified to strengthen and reinforce the product being built. PAN is a high cost material and takes up a lot of company backed capital to manipulate into durable carbon fiber, which results in more expensive products for consumers.
The scientists at Oak Ridge National Library describe their process as an efficient way to create affordable carbon fiber. The carbon is created by a similar high-temperature process to the current high-temperature method for PAN based carbon fiber, and takes the cheaper acrylic fiber away from the material. This leaves behind pure carbon fiber that is affordable for use in manufacturing industries. The carbon fiber created by this process is still a strong material to be used in reinforcement in advanced composites, but with a comparably low price tag and in larger quantities than previously.
The automotive industry is one of the manufacturing sectors that will benefit from this new technology. The cost reduction in carbon fiber will allow car manufacturers to have lighter, reinforced cars at a fraction of the price. The new process demonstrated by Oak Ridge National Laboratory also allows for large scale production of the less expensive carbon fiber. In the past, carbon fiber has been sold for around $10 a pound. With this new technology that can churn out carbon fiber in larger amounts, carbon fiber costs are able to be reduced by 50 percent. This cost savings will make carbon fiber utilization a possibility for the automotive industry. Consumers should also see a reduction in car prices from the less expensive carbon fiber alternative. The Department of Energy has also been interested in using the technology to reach other U.S. energy regulation mandates within the automotive industry, and provided some funding to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to make these goals achievable.
The automotive industry has been vocal about praising the new technological process provided by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory because the industry has been looking for such a miracle. By 2025, U.S. regulations require that the average fuel economy of vehicles must reach 54.5 miles per gallon. Currently the standard is 35.5 miles per gallon, which ,means that the 2025 mandate is a 60 percent leap from the miles per gallon standard of today. Having cars made lighter with carbon fiber is one way for car companies to increase their vehicle models’ fuel economy. Cars are made of mostly steel nowadays, but using carbon fiber as a primary car material would decrease the weight of vehicles to make them lighter and just as safe as cars made from steel. Since this is a relatively new technology, a chosen select few of car manufacturer companies have been sent samples of the new carbon fiber to create vehicle prototypes with the new material. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory selected the manufacturers based on their internal energy plans and their commitment to improving fuel economy quickly. The results from the vehicle prototypes have been reported as positive, which has been shown as a testament to what this more affordable carbon fiber technological process is capable of.
Another positive from the new, lower cost of carbon fiber is the lessening of environmental impact from the production of carbon fiber. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory has partnered up with The Advanced Composites Innovation, or the IACMI Institute, to utilize low cost carbon fiber products in the alternative energy sector. For example, the wind and solar alternative energy industries would benefit greatly from products that are light, but just as efficient. The equipment needed to run wind turbines needs to be light but also cost effective in order for them to be a viable energy option for consumers and businesses. Also, the process of producing composites in high amounts significantly lowers energy use. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the IACMI are also looking into utilizing cheaper carbon fiber in improving the recycling stream in the automotive manufacturing industry.
The oil industry is another type of business that would benefit from large amounts of cost effective carbon fiber. Carbon fiber would be a huge benefit to this sector because of the corrosive resistant nature of carbon fiber. Deep sea drilling would benefit from having carbon fiber oil equipment due to the noncorrosive nature and the lightness of the material.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s research has been more than a decade in the making and the outcome of a less expensive, but very strong carbon fiber has been seen as very promising to many manufacturing industries. The primary industries that would utilize the large quantities of cheaper carbon fiber would be the automotive industry, wind energy, compressed gas storage units, and construction/building industries.More jobs would also be created from the new technology process of carbon fiber. IACMI estimates a total of 353,000 jobs have been created in the composite field within the past 5 years. This number could grow exponentially with the cheaper cost of carbon fiber. More and more companies have reached out to contact The Oak Ridge National Laboratory and apply for a license to use the new process. The hope for many businesses is to create more jobs and to produce lighter, stronger products.