Honors Gallery

ORNL Secures Four Licenses for Low-Cost Carbon Fiber Technology

Award: Excellence in Technology Transfer

Year: 2018

Award Type: National

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL)

Researchers working in the world-class Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) developed an innovative method to produce low-cost carbon fiber that is poised to revolutionize the composites market. This revolution is underway thanks to successful licensing of the invention to four companies.

Offering exceptional stiffness and low density, carbon fiber can be combined with polymer/plastic composites to provide a lightweight alternative to much heavier metal components and structures. Historically, carbon fiber has been too expensive for widespread use in automobiles and other high-volume industrial applications. Carbon fiber’s high price tag is tied to its expensive polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor and the energy-intensive process for converting the PAN precursor into pure carbon fiber.

ORNL researchers addressed both of these key limitations by using commercially available, textile-grade acrylic fiber—the same material mass produced for use in clothing and carpets—which costs significantly less than PAN precursor fibers. ORNL’s innovative approach that uses acrylic as the precursor reduces the overall cost of carbon fiber manufacturing by 50 percent while significantly reducing energy requirements without sacrificing performance.

ORNL used a competitive process to select between three and five partners to commercialize the intellectual property under semi-exclusive licenses. The goal was to strike a balance between distributing ORNL’s technology as widely as possible while still maintaining the companies’ competitive advantage.

The ORNL Technology Transfer Office collaborated closely with representatives from the lab’s Science & Technology and Economic Development divisions. Science & Technology personnel interacted extensively with the potential licensees and provided insight regarding the technical feasibility of the proposed plans. The Economic Development team helped prospective licensees navigate the complexities of locating and building a major manufacturing facility to commercialize the technology.

Using semi-exclusive license agreements allowed licensees to maximize the competitive advantage, pursue multiple market segments, and raise capital. This also achieved a diverse base of licensees, which mitigated the risks associated with scale-up and a single point of failure. ORNL encouraged licensees to pursue Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) that would allow them to access the CFTF while developing, refining, and validating their scaled-up processes.

The four licenses were executed between August 3, 2016, and June 27, 2017. Two CRADAs were executed in May and October 2017. The commercialization of ORNL’s technology is expected to result in major energy savings and economic growth.

Contact: Dr. James Roberto, (865) 574-4750, [email protected]