Plasma process could cut carbon fiber costs


Carbon fiber is to composites as steel rebar is to concrete. When a support skeleton of either is embedded inside a solidifying mass of resin or cement, the strong sinews bind everything together into a resilient, ultra-functional whole.4

But just as building contractors have to charge more if rebar prices rise, the same goes for the makers of carbon-fiber composites. Trouble is, carbon fiber always has been too pricey. Although automotive OEMs expect to get carbon fiber at somewhere around $5 per pound, reported Sanjay Mazumdar, CEO at market consultants Lucintel in January, the market price ranges from $10 to $15 per lb. Carbon fiber’s premium pricetag derives mainly from three factors: high precursor costs, high energy consumption, and long processing times during the fiber-conversion process.

But that could change if a new, lower-cost manufacturing method achieves full industrial commercialization: a novel cold plasma-based processing technology, developed by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and RMX Technologies of Knoxville, Tenn., can dramatically cut the time and energy that’s expended on the carbon fiber production line, said co-inventor and ORNL principal investigator Felix Paulauskas.

Paulauskas developed the basic concept for the method eight years ago and worked with RMX to develop prototypes and demonstrate the technology at the laboratory scale. In 2014, RMX constructed a 1-metric ton plasma oxidation oven (see

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