Department of Energy

Top 9 Things You Didn’t Know about Carbon Fiber

March 29, 2013

You are here

The Energy Department’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory provides clean energy companies and researchers with the opportunity to develop less expensive, better-performing carbon fiber materials and manufacturing processes. Pictured here is the carbon fiber conversion line with the in-line melt spinner. The melt-spinner will be used to produce new precursor fibers that will then be converted to carbon fiber. In collaboration with industrial partners, these fibers will be used to produce prototype composite parts for applications, such as automotive parts, wind turbine blades and thermal insulation. | Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The Energy Department’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory provides clean energy companies and researchers with the opportunity to develop less expensive, better-performing carbon fiber materials and manufacturing processes. Pictured here is the carbon fiber conversion line with the in-line melt spinner. The melt-spinner will be used to produce new precursor fibers that will then be converted to carbon fiber. In collaboration with industrial partners, these fibers will be used to produce prototype composite parts for applications, such as automotive parts, wind turbine blades and thermal insulation. | Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The facility will produce up to 25 tons of carbon fiber a year -- enough to satisfy R&D requirements while enabling large-scale manufacturing of carbon fiber products. Pictured here is the first stage in the carbon fiber production process, where spooled precursor material is fed into the conversion line. Precursor material may be spun into rolls or blown into a mat form before being conveyed through the stabilization, carbonization, and surface treatment steps of the process. | Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The facility will produce up to 25 tons of carbon fiber a year -- enough to satisfy R&D requirements while enabling large-scale manufacturing of carbon fiber products. Pictured here is the first stage in the carbon fiber production process, where spooled precursor material is fed into the conversion line. Precursor material may be spun into rolls or blown into a mat form before being conveyed through the stabilization, carbonization, and surface treatment steps of the process. | Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Pictured here is precursor material coming through one of four oxidation ovens. As the material becomes oxidized, it changes from white to black. The material becomes flame resistant and is able to withstand higher temperatures that will be encountered in the down-stream carbonization furnaces. | Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Pictured here is precursor material coming through one of four oxidation ovens. As the material becomes oxidized, it changes from white to black. The material becomes flame resistant and is able to withstand higher temperatures that will be encountered in the down-stream carbonization furnaces. | Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Pictured in the foreground, the white precursor (polyacrylonitrile, or PAN) fiber is being fed through the first oxidation oven. The black fiber behind that has passed through oxidation zones one and two and is passing through zone 3. At this point, it has turned black; during the oxidation process, the PAN precursor fiber gradually turns from white to yellow, auburn, brown, then black. Once fully oxidized, the fiber is ready to run through the higher-temperature furnaces, which convert the oxidized PAN fiber to carbon fiber. | Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Pictured in the foreground, the white precursor (polyacrylonitrile, or PAN) fiber is being fed through the first oxidation oven. The black fiber behind that has passed through oxidation zones one and two and is passing through zone 3. At this point, it has turned black; during the oxidation process, the PAN precursor fiber gradually turns from white to yellow, auburn, brown, then black. Once fully oxidized, the fiber is ready to run through the higher-temperature furnaces, which convert the oxidized PAN fiber to carbon fiber. | Photo courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

This article is part of the Energy.gov series highlighting the “Top Things You Didn’t Know About…” Be sure to check back for more entries soon.

9. Carbon fiber -- sometimes known as graphite fiber -- is a strong, stiff, lightweight material that has the potential to replace steel and is popularly used in specialized, high-performance products like aircrafts, racecars and sporting equipment.

8. Carbon fiber was first invented near Cleveland, Ohio, in 1958. It wasn’t until a new manufacturing process was developed at a British research center in 1963 that carbon fiber’s strength potential was realized.

7. Current methods for manufacturing carbon fiber tend to be slow and energy intensive, making it costly for use in mass-produced applications. With a goal of reducing carbon fiber production costs by 50 percent, the Energy Department’s new Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory is working with manufacturers and researchers to develop better and cheaper processes for producing carbon fibers. Lowering the cost of carbon fibers make it a viable solution for vehicles and a wide variety of clean energy applications.

6. The 42,000-square foot facility features a 390-foot-long processing line that is capable of producing up to 25 tons of carbon fiber a year -- that is enough carbon fiber to cover the length of almost 138,889 football fields.

5. The most common carbon fiber precursor -- the raw material used to make carbon fibers -- is polyacrylonitrile (or PAN), accounting for more than 90 percent of all carbon fiber production. Other precursors options include a common plastic and a wood byproduct.

4. As part of conventional carbon fiber production, precursors go through several processes that include stretching, oxidation (to raise the melting temperature) and carbonization in high-temperature furnaces that vaporize about 50 percent of the material, making it nearly 100 percent carbon.

3. Carbon fiber can be woven into a fabric that is suitable for use in defense applications or added to a resin and molded into preformed pieces, such as vehicle components or wind turbine blades.

2. The next generation of carbon-fiber composites could reduce passenger car weight by 50 percent and improve fuel efficiency by about 35 percent without compromising performance or safety -- an advancement that would save more than $5,000 in fuel over the life of the car at today’s gasoline prices.

1. In addition to its uses in manufacturing of cars and trucks, advances in carbon fiber will help American manufacturers lower the cost and improve the performance of wind turbine blades and towers, electronics, energy storage components and power transmission lines.