Department of Energy

Lab Breakthrough: Better Fiber for Better Products

May 2, 2012

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Breakthrough: Better Fiber for Better Products

Researchers at Idaho National Laboratory have developed a cost-effective method for the continuous production of alpha silicon carbide fiber. The exceptionally strong, lightweight fiber could enable significant performance improvements in many everyday products.

Idaho National Laboratory researcher John Garnier recently took some time to explain how the carbon fibers he and George Griffith invented could impact manufacturing, science and technology. This Q&A and video are part of the Lab Breakthrough series, which highlights innovations and inventions developed at the National Labs. 

Question: For a person walking down the street, what makes the breakthrough so exciting?

John Garnier: New and better materials improve the quality of our lives. Our breakthrough process continuously manufactures alpha silicon carbide fibers for the first time. These fibers could help make so many products we rely on daily better, stronger, lighter, cheaper and more resistant to heat and corrosion. 

For example, automakers could produce lighter, more fuel-efficient and longer-lasting vehicles for you with body structures that are 3 to 6 times stronger than those using steel. Utilities could deploy lighter, stronger power lines capable of carrying more electricity to us. And there are many other potential applications in mining, drilling, defense, energy and various commercial products.

Q: What about your facility made it the right place for this discovery – whether colleagues, equipment or interdisciplinary collaboration? 

JG: At Idaho National Laboratory (INL) we have a lengthy heritage of developing and testing specialized materials for use in nuclear and other energy applications. George Griffith and I combined our personal experience in materials with INL’s applied engineering experience to create this special fiber material. Our efforts developed a process that, for the first time, delivers alpha silicon carbide fiber, which is very strong, temperature-resilient (above 2000oC), affordable, chemically inert, durable, as well as mechanically and thermally stable. 

Q: I know that work often builds from other work in a ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ type of way. Are there any particular technologies or discoveries that act as a basis for your work?

JG: George and I cataloged available materials from more than 60 years of work in nuclear and advanced energy technology development here at INL and compared them to the many operating challenges facing new and existing nuclear reactor fuels and designs. Existing materials available to us just could not meet performance expectations, so we looked to new materials that could have better qualities. Using our combined career experiences, we identified alpha silicon carbide fiber, which required us to invent an efficient, affordable direct manufacturing process. This incredible material has application to many products in transportation, energy, defense, environment and manufacturing.

Q: What’s the next step for getting this innovation out into industry?

JG: We already have received more than four dozen expressions of interest. Because of the wide variety of potential applications in major manufacturing and industrial business sectors, we are providing information and soon plan to host meetings with those interested.

Q: Why is it important to be able to manufacture it as a fiber, rather than a sheet, or a casting – what are its important uses as a fiber?

JG: We decided that ceramic alpha silicon carbide material fulfilled our requirements. The best way for us to produce it was as a continuous and small (micron) diameter fiber, which we make in our process from inexpensive and commercially available carbon fibers. This approach makes it very affordable and as a fiber it can be used to enhance many other products. For example, our fibers can reinforce aluminum or steel alloys as they are made into sheets or other three-dimensional forms for use in vehicle manufacturing. These reinforced products could be 3 to 6 times stronger than steel, offering greater personal protection for drivers and passengers, while being up to 30 percent lighter. This may permit our vehicles to travel far greater distances on a gallon of gas or electrical charge.

Also, we can make the flexible carbon fibers into many forms, prior to conversion to alpha silicon carbide. This permits us to braid it or configure it into sheets, strips or three-dimensional forms. So, we end up producing various, specified forms with greater strength, wear resistance and versatility. We are continuing to experiment to further enhance the fiber’s versatility in enhancing products.

Q: That leads me to this, what’s the most sci-fi application you can imagine for this innovation? Basically, I’m asking about the space elevator.

JG: Our conquest of space is dependent upon our ability to deliver raw materials beyond earth orbit or make products from new materials found throughout the universe. INL’s alpha silicon carbide manufacturing process leverages the two common elements of carbon and silicon. We think this could provide a means of producing structural materials useful in future extraterrestrial exploration efforts.