Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) have demonstrated a production method they estimate will reduce the cost of carbon fiber by as much as 50 percent and the energy used to produce it by more than 60 percent. According to the ORNL, cost has been “the single largest roadblock to widespread use of carbon fiber as a strong, stiff reinforcement for advanced composites.” Additionally, more than 90 percent of the energy needed to manufacture CFRP comes from manufacturing the carbon fiber itself.

The current widespread method relies on a precursor of carbon fiber – polyacrylonitrile, or PAN – which is chemically modified to maximize the mechanical properties of the end product. The specialty precursor materials and the energy needed for the conversion processes are what make producing carbon fiber so expensive.

ORNL’s new method uses commercially-available, textile-grade acrylic fiber precursor materials, which have a similar chemistry to specialty PAN, but cost about half as much. ORNL researchers previously believed textile-grade PAN was a pathway to lower-cost carbon fiber, but laboratory-scale experiments couldn’t fully explore its potential at a production scale. To make that possible, DOE’s Advanced Manufacturing and Vehicle Technologies offices have funded research and operations at ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, a highly instrumented, semi-production scale carbon fiber conversion plant.

“This accomplishment underscores the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s commitment to addressing our nation’s most pressing energy challenges, and the payoff could be significant,” ORNL Director Thom Mason said. “Automakers, consumers and the environment will realize tremendous benefits because of the investment just a few years ago in the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility.”

ORNL is making the new method available for licensing, and will accept license applications for the process through May 15. Licensing information for manufacturers in the U.S. is available here.