The US Department of Energy is pumping some serious money into helping to reduce the production cost of carbon fiber manufacturing. They are using $34.7 million of the $104.7 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for this carbon fiber project. The rest is going towards improved efficiency/lower costs for car batteries, as well as net-zero energy building technologies.
The idea behind pumping money to lower carbon fiber manufacturing costs is because carbon fiber is critical to reducing the weight of vehicles. What’s so great about that? By decreasing weight, it also raises fuel efficiency, all while maintaining the same strength and safety that is found in steel autobodies. The ultimate goal is to reduce the price of carbon fiber to $3-$5 per pound from the current $10-$20 per pound range.
The money will specifically be going to building a new carbon fiber technology center at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Oak Ridge Tennessee. ORNL has developed advanced microwave-assisted plasma processes to help potentially reduce the cost.
Fred Baker heats and spins lignin in a melt spinner. Owing to a purification process developed at ORNL, the tiny holes in the spinnerette through which hairlike fibers are drawn are not blocked by sulfur salts and particles normally present in lignin. ORNL, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and MeadWestvaco are jointly developing an industrial process for purifying lignin to reduce material cost.
Felix Paulauskas heats bundles of fibers in a controlled manner in a furnace. The microwave-assisted plasma (MAP) techniques he helped develop eliminate the nitrogen and hydrogen atoms in the precursor, lining up the carbon atoms to produce a graphite-like fiber that is stiff and strong. Paulauskas also uses the advanced MAP techniques to reduce the costs of carbonizing and graphitizing carbon fibers.
An orange robot sprays the fibers and a binder onto a form, making a mat-like, carbon-fiber composite preform. In production the form would have the shape of an automotive part, such as a car’s body panel.