Carbon Fiber: Another Successful Government Innovation

Commercialization Could Revolutionize Auto Industry

Originally published at Innovation Files.

Ford and Dow Automotive Systems - a division of the Dow Chemical Company - recently announced that their respective engineers and researchers would collaborate to develop and produce low-cost carbon fiber, a polymer with a very high strength-to-weight ratio. While much of the interest in new automobile technology is directed at more efficient batteries for electric vehicles, low-cost carbon fiber has major implications for developing a low-carbon transportation sector as well. Using the material could cut the weight of future Ford cars and trucks by as much as 750 pounds while possibly increasing crash protection, making it "the holy grail of weight reduction," as Autoblog put it. This could prove essential to not only making new gasoline-powered vehicles more fuel efficient, but also for increasing the performance of electric vehicles and other clean technologies. And although Ford and Dow's agreement might seem like another run-of-the-mill corporate partnership, it is in fact the latest product of many years of strong public investment and vital public-private partnerships.

Carbon fiber composites have been employed in racecars, sporting goods, and the aerospace industry for decades due to their high strength and low mass, but have been historically too costly for high-volume, wide-scale use, relegating it to highly specialized markets. The high cost is associated with a complicated manufacturing process that involves large, capital-intensive equipment and multiple steps to convert raw, base materials, or "precursors", into carbon fiber. Innovating lower-cost precursors is particularly important in the context of mass manufacturing carbon fiber.

A limited edition 2010 Ford Mustang with carbon fiber body panels, which reduced its conventional weight by 400-500 pounds. Photo credit:

The carbon fiber industry has thus faced a chicken and egg dilemma. Due to the high cost of their product, producers have experienced a volatile, boom-and-bust cycle of business as the desires and budgets of customers shift. Unfortunately, this has in turn made it difficult for producers to invest the time and capital needed to develop new manufacturing processes that could subsequently lower costs and drive up business. Furthermore, the glut of potential avenues of research - given the complexity of the manufacturing process - provides an additional challenge for firms that might be interested in comprehensive technology development, as does the risk associated with making a significant R&D investment.

Fortunately, the Department of Energy recognized the substantial potential benefits of low-cost carbon fiber and stepped in to help scale up the technology. Using early funding support from the DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) established a research program in the early 1990s to discover better and cheaper precursors and more effective processing treatments to convert them into carbon fiber. Its initial work on material processing was so successful that the program spun off to form what is now the Vehicles Technologies Program (VTP) at EERE, with a focus on fostering next-generation energy-efficient transportation technologies in addition to carbon fibers - a development that helps illustrate both the diversity of the federal clean tech innovation ecosystem and how early research can lead to unexpected benefits.

In any case, ORNL's work on carbon fiber continued unabated through the 2000's and the lab made significant advances experimenting with a wide variety of potential precursors, including biomass-derived Lignin and even plastic bags, as well as manufacturing innovations to cut back on both the time and energy needed to make carbon fiber. For example, ORNL collaborated with Hexcel, an advanced materials company, on carbon fiber-precursor materials demonstration projects in 2000 and 2003. Together, they made important progress in testing Polyacrylonitrile, which is now used in the processing of approximately 90 percent of contemporary commercial carbon fiber. Hexcel's carbon fiber can actually be found on Boeing's heralded new 787 Dreamliner airplanes. In the spirit of collaboration, the lab also took the initiative to create a consortium of stakeholder companies, the Oak Ridge Carbon Fiber Composites Consortium, in 2011 in order to better facilitate inter-industry and industry-government partnerships to accelerate technology exchange and transfer.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has an "airframe comprising nearly half carbon fiber reinforced plastic and other composites" and thus has "weight savings on average of 20 percent compared to more conventional aluminum designs", according to Boeing. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

As research progressed, ORNL partnered with Dow Chemical Company - primarily to develop a new, potentially lower-cost Polyolefin-based polymer, in lieu of the aforementioned, more conventional Polyacrylonitrlile-based precursor, but also for the company's commercialization expertise. In fact, the collaboration led to a $5 million grant from the state of Michigan in 2010 to specifically "help accelerate innovation efforts to manufacture a cost effective carbon fiber for use in industrial market applications", according to ORNL. The EERE Advanced Manufacturing Office provided an additional $5 million in matching funding, with Dow chipping in around $3 million. Furthermore, just last month, Dow received another $9 million from DOE to "create a production process for carbon fibers that could reduce production cost by 20 percent and reduce total carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent per unit of carbon fiber", as reported by Michigan Live.

ORNL also reached a milestone in March 2009, when it competed for and won a $34.7 million grant, issued by EERE under the Stimulus Act, to build the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF), an installation solely dedicated to carbon fiber RD&D. The CFTF is in part meant to be a resource that industry can access for help in commercializing low-cost carbon fiber and while not yet operational, facility construction is ahead of schedule and under-budget with operations expected to begin in early 2013, according to ORNL officials. With an eye towards the future, ORNL partnered with nearby Roane State Community College, winning grants totaling more than $4 million from various federal entities in 2011 to fund carbon fiber manufacturing-workforce training in conjunction with the new facility, including a specialized associate's degree program.

This progression of events, culminating in the Ford and Dow agreement - which ORNL helped broker and EERE financially supported- is an encouraging indication that the commercialization of low-cost carbon fiber for widespread use may be fast approaching, due in large part to years of dogged public investment and high-impact public-private partnerships. In the case of the domestic automotive industry, Ford, the number 2 U.S. automaker, hopes to use carbon fiber components in next-generation vehicles by the end of this decade. Their success in developing economical carbon fiber could not only boost the efficiency of every Ford vehicle - including hybrids and electric vehicles - but also have positive implications for the production of other clean technologies, like wind turbine blades.
While ORNL has invested an estimated $60-80 million (including the $34.7 million for the CFTF) in carbon fiber research over the years, the resulting technology advancements have contributed to a rapidly burgeoning industry. Market research firm Smithers Apex expects the global carbon fiber market to grow at an average annual rate of 17 percent over the next five years, with Lux Research predicting that it will reach a value of roughly $26 billion by 2020. As High-Performance Composites magazine reported in March 2012, it is difficult to underestimate the material's market potential: "fiber consumers are emerging in droves from nearly every conceivable market sector, ready to try carbon composites in a huge range of applications."

At one point, innovating low-cost carbon fiber must have seemed like an impossibility given the significant cost barriers to sustained research and development. As such, the government's decision to step in with targeted investments to overcome those barriers and build institutional support to bridge the technology from lab to market has proved critical to its progress up to this moment. Now, there are large, growing markets for carbon fiber that will lead to economic growth and reduced carbon emissions. Carbon fiber thus joins the Internet, satellites, microchips, and nuclear power in the pantheon of government technology innovation success stories.

Specific information on the research investments made by EERE and ORNL were gained from a series of e-mail exchanges with members of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory team.

Clifton Yin is a Clean Energy Policy Analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Matthew Stepp, a former Breakthrough Generation Fellow, is a Senior Analyst at ITIF.