Carbon fiber reinforced polymer—yes, it’s a mouthful—is a strong and extremely light composite material commonly used today to build lightweight, but expensive, specialty products including spacecraft, top-line sports cars, and industrial robots. Bringing down the cost of manufacturing carbon fiber, however, could unleash this promising material for widespread use in clean energy and other industries.
The Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF) at the Energy Department’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory offers a unique, highly flexible, highly instrumented research space for demonstrating ways to scale up and bring down the overhead of testing carbon-fiber prototypes for use in new polymers and products. The 42,000-square-foot facility can make up to 25 tons of carbon fiber each year, enabling industry to experiment with new carbon-fiber precursors, or base materials, at a small scale. As more companies pursue low-cost carbon fiber for commercial applications, the CFTF is also playing an increasingly important role in bridging the gap between research and development (R&D) and commercializing new materials for mass market.
For many years, carbon fiber only saw use in highly specialized markets like racecars and sporting goods because of a reputation for being costly and difficult to mass produce. However, R&D breakthroughs have driven production costs down, and industry is taking notice. For example, Ford Motor Company and DowAksa recently announced a joint development agreement to make carbon fiber for high-volume automotive light-weighting applications. Both companies are also part of the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, a consortium of companies, national laboratories, universities, and other organizations dedicated to improving manufacturing processes for advanced composites throughout the supply chain. Ford and DowAksa’s work will be supported by the CFTF, which is also a partner in the new Institute.
As we continue to develop new carbon-fiber technology, the CFTF will:
- Help demonstrate ways to scale up low-cost carbon-fiber manufacturing, especially focusing on the final steps leading to full-scale commercial production
- Produce small quantities of innovative, low-cost carbon fiber needed for testing new prototype materials and manufacturing processes
- Facilitate a training system, including educational internships, industrial training and recertification, for developing the future carbon-fiber workforce
The CFTF is working hard to identify and create effective partnerships with an emphasis on carbon-fiber users that will strengthen the market for lower-cost materials for mass produced consumer goods. The CFTF is supported by the Energy Department’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and Vehicle Technologies Office.