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ORNL receives Recovery Act funding for Carbon Fiber Technology Center

ORNL's new carbon fiber research center can help strengthen U.S. automotive and energy industries. Shown here is carbon fiber from a microwave assisted plasma unit at ORNL.December 4, 2009 — A new, stimulus-funded research center at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory could help strengthen the very 'fiber' of America's automotive and energy industries.

Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, DOE has allocated $34.7 million to establish the Carbon Fiber Technology Center at ORNL. The project, which will enable the development and commercialization of low-cost carbon fiber for use in composite materials, is being funded through DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. The announcement was part of $104 million in Recovery Act funding for research and testing facilities at seven DOE national laboratories.

"Materials research conducted at this center will help advance the production of lighter-weight vehicles that use less oil and less fuel and produce fewer emissions without compromising comfort, safety or performance," said ORNL Director Thom Mason. "These goals are a priority for the nation's automotive and other industries, and through this project, we can help them address the challenge."

Carbon fiber composite material is a polymer matrix composite that weighs significantly less than steel yet offers comparable strength and performance in vehicle applications. ORNL is also exploring the use of carbon fiber composite materials in other energy-related applications such as blades and towers for wind turbines and industrial technologies.

"Decreasing vehicle weight and fuel demand through the use of carbon fiber composite material is a big step government and industry can take together to help America achieve its fuel efficiency goals," said Dana Christensen, associate laboratory director for Energy and Engineering Sciences at ORNL. "During the last 10 years, we've made significant progress toward overcoming commercialization barriers caused by high carbon fiber production costs and limited manufacturing technologies."

Ray Boeman, director of ORNL's Advance Transportation Systems Programs, said ongoing research focus areas include identifying low cost carbon fiber precursors, developing advanced technologies for converting precursors to carbon fiber, and testing low-cost composite design and manufacturing capabilities.

"The new technology center's capabilities are expected to advance these research efforts, while enabling development of new innovations and commercialization opportunities," Boeman said. "Operating at a pilot level, the facility will be highly flexible and instrumented to demonstrate and evaluate the scalability of science and technology for lowering carbon fiber costs at least 50 percent and improving affordability of carbon fiber in high volume applications."

The center will be capable of producing up to 80 tons per year of low-cost carbon fiber for evaluation and use by industry and government partners. Primary equipment will include a thermal (conventional) carbon fiber conversion line and a melt-spun precursor fiber production line. Space and utility provisions are planned to add an advanced technology conversion line. Boeman said 17 potential users from industry, academia, economic development agencies, and the government submitted letters of support or commitment for the research center, which also will accommodate educational and training opportunities.

"The technology center will enable ORNL researchers to interface more closely with our partners, helping foster a highly skilled workforce, domestic job growth and economic development," Boeman said.

ORNL is managed by UT-Battelle for the Department of Energy.