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Innovation Continues To Push Carbon Fiber Forward

Tasuns Composite Technology Co.,Ltd | Updated: Nov 06, 2017

There’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on in the world of carbon fiber composites. Among those trying to rattle the status quo are three-time Tour de France cycling champion Greg LeMond and German chemicals and materials science giant Covestro LLC.

LeMond has formed his own composites company and struck major licensing deals in the United States and Australia that he believes may help transform the carbon fiber industry.

Covestro, meanwhile, is building an entirely new business around its polycarbonate-based Continuous Fiber-Reinforced Thermoplastics technology and preparing for a major market push.

From Tennessee …

Greg Lemond on carbon fiber bicycle at Alpe D’HuezGreg LeMond rides a carbon fiber bicycle in the 1991 Tour de France. (Photo by Steve Selwood via Wikimedia Commons)

Now 56 years old, LeMond in 1986 became the first to win the Tour de France on a carbon fiber bicycle (he also won the Tour in 1989 and 1990). Then, in early 2016 he formed LeMond Composites in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and serves as the firm’s CEO and executive chairman. One of his primary goals is to make high-end bicycles in the United States.

Greg Lemond, far right, tours Oak Ridge National Laboratories in Tennessee. (SOURCE: ORNL)

LeMond last year secured a license to a patent-pending carbon fiber manufacturing process from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). LeMond Composites has a 22-acre campus with 66,000-square-foot facility in Oak Ridge, and is progressing with plans to break ground this fall on a further, 100,000-square-foot addition.

In addition, LeMond recently finalized an exclusive, global licensing agreement with the Carbon Nexus research lab of Australia’s Deakin University that the firm says gives it access “to a technology portfolio containing both a mechanical manufacturing invention as well as unique processes and precursor materials capable of producing both industrial-grade and aerospace-grade fibers at significantly reduced costs.”

The ORNL and Deakin technologies have been developed independently, but may be able to be used together in some sort of hybrid manner, Don Naab, health, safety and environmental manager of LeMond Composites, explained in a recent telephone interview. Both technologies are said to potentially allow for producing carbon fiber that is 50-60 percent less expensive than current materials. Such a cost breakthrough would create many new application opportunities for the super-strong, very lightweight material that can be used as a metal substitute.

previous article outlined how Oak Ridge planned to license its technology. ORNL initially said it would offer licenses for up to five companies, but left it to the licensees to publicly disclose their investment.

… to Australia

Victoria, Australia-based Deakin University in 2014 created the Carbon Nexus research center as part of its new Institute for Frontier Materials on the school’s Waurn Ponds campus in Geelong. The center was so named since Deakin aims for it to be “the nexus of industry, research and teaching for the global composite community.” The government-supported move has been taken in part to offset the demise of Australia’s automobile manufacturing industry.

The technology, developed by Ph.D. student Maxime Maghe and Carbon Nexus General Manager Steve Atkiss, is said to have the potential to slash the energy used in carbon fiber production by 75 percent and the production process time from roughly 80 minutes to less than 15 minutes.

In addition, Carbon Nexus said, the specialized carbon fiber production machinery required for its process is expected to cost about half that of current equipment. The smaller equipment footprint makes possible a 70 percent reduction in the size of a carbon fiber processing plant.

LeMond – who signed the A$58 million (US$44 million), 20-year licensing deal in Geelong on June 21 – said the ability to scale-up low-cost carbon fiber production had been the biggest hurdle to wider scale adoption of the material. He noted it is difficult to fully grasp the global impact the technology would have on consumers.

“What Deakin and Carbon Nexus have invented here will feed the world with low-cost carbon fiber and help make carbon fiber available to the masses,” he said. “This could make Geelong the new composite valley.”

LeMond Composites said it also will consider building a carbon fiber manufacturing plant in Geelong, which would involve the investment of more than A$30 million (US$24 million) in construction and equipment and create dozens of jobs for Geelong manufacturers to take the carbon fiber of the future to the global market.

LeMond’s early focus is on developing carbon fiber for such sectors as bicycles, automobiles and renewable energy applications (such as large, stiff, lightweight wind-turbine blades).

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing for LeMond, however. He initially hired Connie Jackson as CEO of LeMond Composites, but then fired and sued her last December for allegedly violating terms of her employment contract. Jackson, who previously worked at Oak Ridge National Laboratories and is listed as a co-inventor on the patent for ORNL’s low-cost carbon fiber manufacturing process, counter-sued, along with her husband, according to this Jan. 20 report in Bicycle Retailer magazine. The parties settled the suits in April, according to this April 28 story in the Roane County (Tenn.) News.

Covestro’s new CFRTP business 

Covestro has quietly been building out its Continuous Fiber-Reinforced Carbon Thermoplastics (CFRTP) business. The team so far has worked with multiple consumer electronics companies to replace magnesium alloy with CFRTP in laptop covers, where performance and aesthetics often garner equal attention. But the firm sees the technology’s potential extending well beyond into automotive, medical equipment, luggage and the like.

Using the tagline of “Tune the World” to emphasize its ability to precisely customize end-use properties, Covestro has launched CFRTP as an entirely new business with co-CEOs David Hartmann and Michael Schmidt based in Shanghai, China and Leverkusen, Germany, respectively.

With a long history in resin manufacturing, and particularly in polycarbonates, Covestro – the former Bayer MaterialScience – says it is well-placed to leverage its extensive thermoplastic design and engineering experience and value-chain partnerships to produce high-performance, hybrid solutions that offer highly attractive surface finishes.

CFRTP composites are made from ultrathin (about 120 microns), unidirectional (UD) tapes that are laminated together at specific angles to form sheets that can be “tuned” to a particular performance criteria. The long strands of fiber are oriented and provide strength in the lengthwise direction of the tape.

Examples of CFRTP materials and processes. (SOURCE: Covestro)

The resulting thin, stiff, and lightweight yet very strong sheets “look and sound like metal, but have the flexibility of a composite,” notes Hartmann.

Different manufacturing options

For large, deep-draw shapes such as car body panels, other transport applications and furniture, Covestro recommends a tape-based approach to forming that starts with laying out layers of tape using an automated robotic layup process. The tape stack is then transferred into a large-scale compression molding tool where the part is formed and additional features such as ribs, hooks and bosses can be added through overmolding as needed.

Unidirectional tape layers. (SOURCE: Covestro)

For smaller parts, the firm suggests starting with pre-formed CFRTP sheets that can be tailor-made in terms of number of tape layers and fiber orientation. These sheets can then be formed in conventional thermal compression molding machines, again making it easy to integrate additional features such as ribs, hooks and bosses during the forming process.

For large, deep-draw shapes such as car panels, Covestro suggests a tape-based approach to forming. For smaller parts, it recommends starting with pre-formed CFRTP sheets. (SOURCE: Covestro)

In terms of forming and in relation to comparable materials, Covestro says its CFRTP offers an extremely attractive mix of short cycle times and high yield rates at low cost.

Adding product features such as apertures, integrated buttons, ribs, bosses and hooks to CFRTP parts is easy, as it can all be done during the compression molding process. This, Covestro says, provides considerable flexibility over thermoset composites and metal-forming techniques that typically require manual assembly or time-consuming and costly CNC machining.

The company is positioning CFRTP as an addition to the world of premium materials that typically is limited to metals, glass and ceramics. Stressing its design opportunities, Covestro claims CFRTP “has the cool touch and reassuring resonance of metals, as well as the pristine surface of glass and ceramics,” while at the same time bringing the flexibility of thermoplastic forming to premium materials.