Honors Gallery

Innovative Oven for Faster, Less Energy-Intensive Carbon Fiber Manufacturing

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2018

Award Type: National

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

The Department of Energy has invested significant resources to advance better, less-expensive techniques for manufacturing carbon fiber. The lightweight, flame-resistant, strong material could reduce passenger car weight by 50 percent and improve fuel efficiency by about 35 percent without compromising performance or safety. Such an advance would save more than $5,000 in fuel over the life of a car at today’s gasoline prices.

Similar benefits would be achieved for trucks and other freight vehicles, as well as aircraft. It would also significantly reduce our nation’s dependence on foreign oil. Other energy-related applications for carbon fiber include wind turbine blades and towers, electronics, energy storage components, and power transmission lines.

Conventional manufacturing methods are slow and energy-intensive, making it costly to use carbon fiber in mass-produced applications.  Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has licensed a suite of technologies that provides an innovative Atmospheric-Pressure Plasma Oxidation Oven, which ORNL co-developed with licensee RMX Technologies. Used for the manufacture of carbon fiber, the ORNL-RMX innovation provides a better method to oxidize carbon fiber precursors. It achieves a threefold increase in production throughput while dropping energy requirements by 75 percent; and its smaller size reduces capital costs (e.g., smaller building, lower exhaust treatment requirements) and labor costs (e.g., less operational oversight required). The extremely reliable and robust technology produces carbon fiber at least as good as conventionally processed fiber. In some instances, the process has produced better fiber, potentially reducing the amount needed in the composites that use it.

The technology development was truly a team effort, with the participation of both ORNL and RMX equally crucial to the success. ORNL brought its expertise in carbon fiber, while RMX possessed unique, essential knowledge of plasma processing. RMX also contributed an industrial perspective, ensuring scalability in every advance.

In 2015, while planning to commercialize the technology, RMX launched 4M Carbon Fiber, which now has responsibility for commercialization of the transferred technology. The RMX-4M team has also engaged another partner, C. A. Litzler Co., Inc., a large equipment manufacturer based in Cleveland, Ohio, that is providing extremely valuable oven design expertise. The partners jointly designed a pilot industrial oxidation oven capable of 175 metric tons/year throughput, which allows 4M to produce enough carbon fiber to demonstrate/verify performance to potential customers.

Thanks to the cost and energy savings provided by the Atmospheric-Pressure Plasma Oxidation Oven, this technology transfer effort is expected to make the use of carbon fiber within 10 to 15 years as widespread as plastics are used today. It can be used in composites for buildings, bridges, and other structures, as well as textiles and microelectrodes.  In summary, this technology transfer effort is a public-private collaboration that launched a U.S.- based company that is poised to grow exponentially within the next 5 years while transforming the market for carbon fiber materials and increasing the nation’s role in a major sector of manufacturing.

Contact: Dr. Felix Paulauskas, (865) 576-3785, [email protected]