Basic research at Carbon Nexus involves four areas: reducing the cost of carbon fiber, improving its performance, reducing cycle time and improving surface treatment and sizing to enhance carbon fiber performance.

The facility has already made some significant improvements in the amount of energy used for the oxidation and carbonization processes. Eighteen months ago, the basic operating energy consumption for the carbonization line was 822 kW; researchers have now reduced it to 377 kW, less than half the initial expenditure.

“This is not focused on inventing new equipment to do the process,” says Buckmaster. “It’s focused around optimizing the way you use the equipment. We think that’s going to be most relevant to the companies who are manufacturing carbon fiber today.”

To further reduce costs, Carbon Nexus researchers are investigating precursors with higher carbon content in hopes of gaining better yields as well as lower cost and bio-based precursor materials.

In the U.S., Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is home to the DOE’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, which has a 390-foot-long processing line and can produce up to 25 metric tons of carbon fiber a year. ORNL recently 3-D printed the 50th anniversary version of the Shelby Cobra, using 20 percent carbon fiber reinforced ABS material.

ORNL Shelby

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory 3-D printed the 50th anniversary version of the Shelby Cobra, using 20 percent carbon fiber-reinforced ABS material.

While ORNL will continue to conduct its own carbon fiber research, it is now a key part of a larger endeavor, the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI). Launched in June, IACMI comprises 123 partners/members, including ACMA, manufacturers, material suppliers, government and academia, who are involved in advanced composite research, development and production. Automotive manufacturers like Ford, Honda R&D and Volkswagen are IACMI members; so are composite industry companies like Ashland Performance Materials, Continental Structural Plastics and Materials Innovation Technologies.

IACMI will focus on three areas of applied research – automotive, compressed gas storage and wind. The goal is to move new technology out of the research lab and into the production line within two to three years. For the automotive industry, researchers will do initial work at ORNL and then move to the labs at Michigan State University, which has 4,000 to 5,000-ton presses capable of producing full-scale components.