Oak Ridge carbon fiber plant could lower cost of strong, lightweight material

Carbon Fiber Technology Facility

Gary R. Lownsdale of Plasan Carbon Composites, right, talks to Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, center, near a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 hood at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility on Tuesday as federal, University of Tennessee, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory officials listen.

A unique manufacturing plant in west Oak Ridge that started operating about six weeks ago can make 25 tons of carbon fiber each year. It’s material that could be used for prototype parts in products ranging from cars and airplanes to wind turbine blades and natural gas tanks.

The $35 million Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Horizon Center Business Park is designed to “scale up” laboratory research on low-cost carbon fiber, make enough material to help industrial partners build prototype carbon-fiber composite parts, and develop a skilled manufacturing workforce.

Carbon fiber is strong and lightweight, but it is also expensive and that has limited its use.

Officials hope to use the 42,000-square-foot Carbon Fiber Technology Facility to change that. They want to make producing carbon fiber as cost-efficient as manufacturing steel or aluminum.

The plant, which features a 390-foot-long row of furnaces and ovens linked by a conveyor line, uses a white string-like precursor known as polyacrylonitrile, or PAN, and converts it through heat, time, and tension into a black string of carbon fiber. The carbon fiber is much stronger than the PAN, said Lee McGetrick, director of the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility.

Officials from The Dow Chemical and Ford Motor companies, two commercial partners, said the plant provides a missing link between laboratory research and industrial applications. The facility has attracted a consortium of more than 40 private and public sector partners, including Ford, Dow Chemical, and Volkswagen of America.

The facility also has training-related partnerships with Roane State Community College and Oak Ridge Associated Universities, McGetrick said.

“We’re here to try to commercialize technology,” she said.

David Danielson, U.S. Department of Energy assistant secretary, said carbon fiber in automobiles could reduce vehicle weights by 50 percent and increase fuel efficiency by 35 percent. Vehicle weights could be reduced by up to 750 pounds by 2020.

David Danielson at Carbon Fiber Technology Facility

David Danielson, U.S. Department of Energy assistant secretary, left, speaks to more than 200 people during a Tuesday ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility. Also pictured, from right, are Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, and Gov. Bill Haslam.

Officials celebrated the start-up of the carbon fiber plant, which is part of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, with a Tuesday ribbon-cutting ceremony. More than 200 people attended, including Danielson, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, and ORNL Director Thom Mason.

“This continues ORNL’s track record of developing new materials and processes that spawn new products and industries,” Mason said. “We translate basic science into the innovation that creates jobs, and our new facility will help the U.S. establish a leadership position in the growing carbon fiber manufacturing sector.”

McGetrick said construction on the plant, which is leased from R&R Partners, started in March 2011, and the equipment was installed during the past year. Workers are wrapping up a six-week commissioning period, which required them to show DOE that the plant could meet certain milestones.

DOE signed a formal commissioning document this week, McGetrick said.

“We are moving forward with operations,” she said.

She said the plant will use PAN for the next few months and will test other materials this year, including lignin, a plant-based fiber that is a biorefinery waste product. Researchers are looking for a material that costs less than PAN. The project could last five to 10 years, or longer, she said.

The facility, which operates around the clock about four days per week, was funded with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the Stimulus Act. It has about 25 employees.

During the ceremony, Danielson also announced the launch of a new Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, a DOE program focused on boosting American manufacturing of clean energy products and U.S. competitiveness through improvements in productivity. The initiative includes private-sector partnerships and new DOE funding, among other things, a press release said.

“We are at a critical moment in the history of energy in our nation,” Danielson said. “Over just the last seven years, global investment in the clean energy sector has grown nearly five-fold to over $260 billion and these markets will grow into the trillions of dollars in the years to come.

“Our nation faces a stark choice: the energy technologies of the future can be developed and manufactured in America for export around the world, or we can cede global leadership and import these technologies from other nations,” he said. “As part of President Obama’s plan to revitalize American manufacturing, the Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative will seize this opportunity to ensure U.S. leadership in the clean energy sector and advance the global competitiveness of American manufacturers.”

As part of the effort, Danielson announced that DOE had awarded more than $23 million to innovative manufacturing research and development projects.

Here are the recipients and DOE funding requests:

  • Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo.—$1,167,878;
  • Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Mich.—$7,037,400;
  • Novomer Inc. in Ithaca, N.Y.—$5,000,000;
  • TIAX LLC in Lexington, Mass.—$2,499,253; and
  • University of Texas at Austin in Austin, Texas—$7,798,383.

DOE said the new projects join an initial set of 13 projects announced in June 2012 that focus on building a strong foundation for clean energy manufacturing in the United States.

“The Energy Department has also released a $15 million funding opportunity to reduce the manufacturing costs of solar energy technology, including photovoltaics and concentrated solar power, and demonstrate cost-competitive innovative manufacturing technologies that can achieve commercial production in the next few years,” DOE said.

For more information about the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, visit www.ornl.gov/manufacturing.

Learn more about the Energy Department’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative at http://www1.eere.energy.gov/energymanufacturing/.

Note: This story was updated at 9:35 a.m. March 27.

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