Carbon fiber is a wonderful material. Lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel, it is ideal for making automobiles. Back in the 50’s, road hugging weight was considered a good thing. Lots of avoirdupois pressing the tires into the pavement was considered essential for good handling, traction in the snow, and curing the heartbreak of psoriasis. Things have changed since those golden days when gasoline was 25 cents a gallon.
Today, weight is the enemy of fuel economy in conventional cars and range in electric cars. BMW spent a lot of money figuring out how to use carbon fiber to build its innovative i3 precisely because keeping the weight of the car as low as possible was critical to how far it would go on one battery charge. Unfortunately, carbon fiber is also far more costly to manufacture than aluminum or steel.
Now, scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory say they have invented a new process for making carbon fiber components that slashes the cost of manufacture by 50% or more. It also reduces the amount of energy needed by more than 60%. The process will be commercialized by a new start-up venture led by three time Tour de France champion Greg Lemond. He has long been involved with carbon fiber technology as part of his quest to lighter, stronger racing bicycles.
“We can provide the advantages of our carbon fiber to many industries by improving strength, stiffness, and weight reduction. If you imagine replacing steel, aluminum, and fiberglass with our carbon fiber, you begin to understand the scope of the potential market,” said Connie Jackson, CEO of LeMond Composites. “Our process will have global applications and we are ready to move forward with scaling the technology.”
“The development of this new process demonstrates the value of coupling basic and applied research, which is a hallmark of ORNL, and it underscores the Department of Energy’s commitment to addressing our nation’s most pressing energy challenges,” said Thom Mason, Oak Ridge National Laboratory director. “The Department’s sustained investments in scientific research and development and in specialized facilities such as CFTF are enabling a variety of applications that will lead to improvements in fuel efficiency and position U.S. industry for global success.”
Carbon fiber has many applications both in the auto industry and in other areas. For instance, it could lead to lighter, stronger, and less expensive wind turbine blades. Low cost carbon fiber could have a ripple effect throughout the manufacturing sector.