A new manufacturing demonstration facility focusing on developing more cost-effective means of producing carbon fiber to replace steel in manufacturing was dedicated on Tuesday, March 26, at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). While carbon fiber is stronger and lighter than steel, its implementation in mainstream products has been impeded because it is currently more expensive to produce. The facility is funded by a $35 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and will bring together about 40 companies working on solutions.

Carbon fiber is expected to play a major role in vehicle lightweighting with the potential of reducing vehicle weight by 50 percent over current models, increasing mileage by 35 percent. Other applications include the next generation of very long blades for windmills.

While the facility will focus on improving the manufacturing process of carbon fiber to reduce production costs, it will also examine using less expensive materials. Most carbon fiber currently being produced is petroleum based, with raw materials making up about half the cost of the final product. One solution being considered is using lignin, a waste product of the paper industry, to produce carbon fiber that is cheaper and more eco-friendly.

“This is an opportunity to bring the composites industry to the next level,” says Tom Dobbins, chief staff executive for the American Composites Manufacturers Association, who attended the dedication. “Significantly reducing the cost of carbon fiber will be a game changer, allowing composites to be more competitive, not only in high performance, but in more traditional applications.

“The facility in Oak Ridge is a great first step. The next step is to create a facility where we can start innovating new manufacturing processes and new core materials to create the next generation of composites materials. A sister manufacturing demonstration facility is already proposed for Detroit. The opportunities for composites are limitless and we are encouraged by the investments being made in our industry.”

ORNL is the latest of several partnerships focused on making carbon fiber a viable and cost effective material for automobile mass production. The Ford Motor Company and Dow Chemical Company have entered a partnership to integrate carbon fiber into the production of cars and trucks with the hope that the material will cut as much as 750 pounds of the weight of a vehicle by the end of the decade.

[BusinessWeek]