Carbon fiber offers a great many performance and lightweighting benefits for composites. Lower cost manufacture and increased use of recycled material now promise to widen the range of applications that could benefit from its properties.

High cost has been a major block to widespread use of carbon fiber as a strong, stiff reinforcement for advanced composites. One initiative underway to reduce these costs is taking place in the United States where researchers at the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have demonstrated a production method they estimate will reduce the cost of carbon fiber as much as 50 percent and the energy used in its production by more than 60 percent. ORNL's new lower cost method, demonstrated at its Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, builds on more than a decade of research in the area. The researchers’ success promises to accelerate adoption of carbon fiber composites in high-volume industrial applications including automotive, wind turbines, compressed gas storage and building infrastructure. After extensive analysis and successful prototyping by industrial partners, last year ORNL made the new method available for licensing.

“Through a competitive selection process, ORNL is working to negotiate up to five license agreements for its low-cost carbon fiber process,” says Dr. Alan Liby, deputy director of the Advanced Manufacturing Program at ORNL. “LeMond Composites was the first to sign a license agreement and other licenses are still in negotiation. The licensees range from start-ups to established players in the carbon fiber production field. Partners will be selected based on their capabilities, business plans, and commitments to manufacture in the United States. Expectations are to see this technology in the marketplace by 2018 and the licensees will explore additional market opportunities.

“The innovation is about the production of low-cost carbon fiber,” he adds. “The properties of the material that the licensees produce will dictate the end-use applications. The carbon fiber produced by ORNL meets the performance criteria prescribed by some automotive manufacturers for high strength composite materials used in high-volume applications. However, the process promises to accelerate adoption of advanced composites in other industrial applications. Future markets for this material could include applications in the wind turbine and gas storage industries. The technology was developed at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility as a pilot scale plant with a capacity of up to 25 tonnes per year. The expectation is that licensees will increase that capacity in their own operations.”

First licensee

LeMond Composites – headed by three-time cycling Tour de France champion Greg LeMond – is a new company offering solutions for high-volume, low-cost carbon fiber. The licensing agreement with ORNL will make the Oak Ridge-based company the first to offer this new carbon fiber to the transportation, renewable energy and infrastructure markets.

LeMond Composites adds that the carbon fiber will provide advantages to many industries by improving strength, stiffness and weight reduction, and the process will have global applications. The company is now ready to move forward with scaling up the technology.

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