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Rendering of a plasma oxidation oven system from RMX Technologies.

Late last week Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) announced that it had made significant progress in its goal of reducing the cost of producing carbon fibre.

In partnership with RMX Technologies, ORNL has developed a plasma-based oxidation method that reduces the time and energy needed for the oxidation of carbon fibre dramatically. The two organizations, based in Tennessee, USA, have signed an exclusive licensing agreement for the technology. 

Indeed, Tennessee has become something of a hotbed for carbon fibre research in the last few years. In 2013, a 3900-m2 carbon fibre technology facility was opened in Oak Ridge by the US Energy Department, ORNL, Ford Motor Co and Dow Chemical.

Further, the University of Tennessee (UT) is leading the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), a US$259-million public-private partnership.

ORNL researcher Felix Paulauskas developed the concept for the plasma oxidation method eight years ago and worked with RMX Technologies to develop prototypes and demonstrate the technology at the laboratory scale. 

In 2014, ORNL was awarded a Patent (with Paulauskas listed as inventor) for a microwave-assisted plasma processing system.

The plasma oxidation process is one of a variety of technologies being developed ORNL to reduce the cost of carbon fibre.

Most recently, ORNL has made available for licensing a method for producing carbon fibres from a comparatively cheap precursor for textile-grade acrylic fibres.

The resulting fibres demonstrate tensile strength, tensile modulus and strain to failure values exceeding 2.8 GPa (400 kilopounds per square inch), 275.8 GPa (40 megapounds per square inch), and 1%, respectively—meeting the performance criteria set out by some automotive manufacturers for the high-volume production of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic (CFRP) parts.

A method for producing carbon fibre from polyethylene (PE) has also been developed.

Significantly, ORNL seems to be making cost savings across the entire carbon fibre value chain. It seems only a matter of time before this material becomes truly affordable for wide-scale use.

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