In composites, its strength to weight ratio is unmatched, and, if it can be made a little more cheaply, we might one day see it everywhere. Brent Balinski looks at some of the ways Australia is making use of carbon fibre.
Though it’s been around in a way since the 19th Century (in lightbulb filaments), and its development began in earnest in the 1950s, there’s a mountain of potential left to exploit when it comes to carbon fibre.
In terms of bringing its price down, exploiting its remarkable properties, and reaping the commercial benefits, there’s vast interest in Australia and great efforts being spent making sure we are involved in the age of carbon fibre.
The production of carbon fibre begins with one of three precursor materials – pitch, rayon or polyacrylonitrile (PAN).
Before the PAN can become fibres of carbon (which are about 5 to 10 micrometres in diameter), it must be mixed with a catalyst, which causes it to separate into long polymeric chains, be fed through three different ovens, and exposed to extremely high temperatures and pressure.
This “carbonises” the fibres, removing all the chemicals other than carbon from them. These are painted with resin, and will eventually be ready to be woven and put into a matrix (which can include polymeric resins and ceramics).
(A more detailed description can be found here.)
Though the price of carbon fibre is generally decreasing, the process remains very energy-hungry and the end product expensive.
Still, it is desirable for many applications, due to its stiffness and strength (often compared to steel) combined with its light weight (significantly less than aluminium).
There are many places where the fibres are of great usefulness now – notably though certainly not exclusively in aerospace and automotive – and many others where there is great potential.
And global demand is headed north very quickly, with one market research report tipping 13 per cent compound annual growth up to 2020.
There are examples of local companies doing impressive things with carbon fibre composites – and who are well-placed for the rocketing demand – such as one-piece wheel maker Carbon Nexus, technology companies such as Quickstep Technologies, FCST and CST Composites, and oven maker Furnace Industries.
At the nexus
One major effort at exploiting opportunities with composites is the Carbon Nexus facility, located at Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus and officially opened in May this year.
Equipped with a pilot manufacturing line and a single-tow research line, the centre has 16 research and technical staff. Dealing with the entire supply chain involving carbon fibre, the $34 million facility is unique in its open-access nature.
The small-scale factory allows companies to monitor and test manufacturing processes in a way that also ensures intellectual property confidentiality. For example, the PLC platform at the plant is isolated from even the other facilities at Deakin.
There are four themes for Carbon Nexus’s research: low-cost carbon fibre, high-performance carbon-fibre, surface treatment and sizing, and curing times.
One of the obstacles to wider adoption of carbon fibre is its price, largely related to the amount of energy spent producing it.
“In the last 10 years we’ve seen the cost of carbon fibre come down from $150 per pound to around $10 per pound,” Associate Professor Bronwyn Fox, who leads Nexus’s research team, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“But there’s been a range of studies that show if we can get that down further to $5 per pound we’re going to see widespread adoption of this material, particularly in the automotive sector.”
There’s an awful lot of room for improvement, in terms of price and elsewhere.
Part of Carbon Nexus’s role is to help Geelong’s industrial transition, which has seen a move away from heavy industry (local and notable recent examples include Ford’s upcoming exit from manufacturing in 2016 and Alcoa’s closure of its Point Henry smelter in July).
The state-of-the-art research centre has helped attract investment from Quickstep and Carbon Nexus in nearby facilities, and there’s hope that DowAksa (a joint venture between Dow Chemical and Aksa) will also set up a plant in Geelong.
“It’s becoming a cluster in Geelong of activity around carbon fibre, and that’s really attractive for international investment,” said Fox.
Stepping up their game
Quickstep’s association with Deakin University goes back until the early days of the millenium.
Their Quickstep process cures resins without the conventional autoclave, which is expensive to run and maintain, using heated fluids and a clamshell-like set-up to finish a part. The process is also quicker than an autoclave by up to 90 per cent.
The company announced in October that it would establish an automotive division and manufacturing site at Waurn Ponds.
“The fact that now you have really this cluster of companies in terms of carbon on one side, the university on the other, and a very strong department in composites, you have companies that are more and more in there, you have people with a very good background in the car industry,” Philippe Odouard, Quickstep’s managing director and CEO, told Manufacturers’ Monthly of the appeal of Geelong for a composites company.
Being situated near researchers (two Deakin PhD students are currently working on Quickstep-related projects) and industrial capability would be of benefit as the company aims to break into the automotive market with its RST (Resin Spray Transfer) technology.
“It is really the material of the future,” he said.
Quickstep has also recently signed a Letter of Intent with Thales to provide components for new Hawkei vehicles, should the Defence department choose to buy these to replace its ageing Land Rover fleet.
This would be the first deal reached to provide their RST solution or products made with it, but there is great potential for composites companies in the automotive market.
It’s been predicted that Volkswagen alone will need 187,000 tonnes of carbon fibre components by 2020.
Future emissions regulation will greatly ramp up the need for carbon fibre-based components as vehicle makers make lighter and lighter cars to avoid punishing taxes.
“And that’s why basically every OEM in the car industry is working on carbon fibre,” said Odouard.
“And the challenge really there is to reduce the cost.”
Newer, cheaper, better
Aerospace and automotive are two major areas offering opportunity in composites, but there are countless others where a composites solution might be worthwhile.
One novel Australian-born solution involves carbon fibre in a revolutionary helmet for jockeys.
Born out of a collaboration of several local manufacturers facilitated by META (the Manufacturing Excellence Taskforce of Australia) Albion’s Advanced Sports Helmet marries a small amount of carbon fibre with a high-modulus fibre and a novel UV curing technology.
“The resin that I’m using is something that I’ve blended myself that allows me to cure with UV,” explained Adjunct Professor Floreana Coman, who is also a founder of FCST.
“By combining this blend [there’s] the lightest and the stiffest helmet one can produce.”
The Romanian-born Coman proudly notes that she was preaching the virtues of carbon fibre well before it was fashionable, and has long been developing courses involving the material, including in architecture.
Her recipe of hybridised fibres and UV curing was developed during a harried, two-month period. She said it offers a superior solution in a number of ways.
The UV curing rules out the need for the manufacturer to use an expensive autoclave. And the blend of materials offers a lighter, stiffer solution than any other.
“With UV you don’t need more than a lamp, which is very cheap,” she explained.
“It will work for certain products but will not work for other products. For the helmet in this particular case it will work fantastic, because it allows me to cure fast. And because the product is used outdoor, it will have an increased resistance to UV, which I think is again a [benefit].”
Curing time is a particularly pressing issue for adoption of carbon composites in automotive, and there is a “global race” on to get cycle times down far under 10 minutes, explained Fox.
“Preferably a minute,” she said.
“Because a Ford comes off the production line in Detroit every minute. And we’re very much focussed on the rapid cure of composite materials.”
Limitations and improvements
As with everything, there are areas where carbon fibre will make sense and those where it will not.
Growing the number of areas where it’ll be an option is part of Carbon Nexus’s work.
There are a great number of improvements that can be made, for example in tensile strength, which studies have shown is currently only 10 per cent of what it could be.
“And that tensile strength is limited by defects, by voids, by impurities in the fibre, and so our research is focussed on how we can nanostructure the precursors to lift that performance that extra bit further,” said Fox.
The other theme of their research involves sizing and surface finish. The polymer coating, which assists things such as the fibres’ handleability and leads to the weavability and preform quality, is something that can be improved.
“That then also translates into getting a really good bond between the fibre and the epoxy matrix that holds the composite material together,” said Fox.
“And that bond is critical for composite materials’ performance, particularly for damage tolerance.
“So we’re very interested in doing some research around the surface treatment of carbon fibre – how we can improve the handleability of the fibre and also improve that bond between the fibre and the matrix.”
Carbon fibre on its own would’ve been unsuitable in the Albion helmet, stressed Coman.
“Carbon is not good at impact,” she said.
“I’m not sure if you ever have seen before the Formula 1 racing cars. When they crash there will be everywhere pieces smashed and spread around.
“And they can be lethal or they can slash the tyres or the drivers. Therefore it’s not the perfect fibre to use in that kind of composite.”
Carbon fibre is sometimes called the Aluminium of the 21st Century.
If Australia is going to be relevant in the 21st century, the argument goes, it should develop a strong carbon fibre industry.
It appears demand from aerospace and automotive is only going to go up with the pressure to be more energy efficient.
Consider the Boeing Dreamliner 787, made up 50 per cent by weight by composites. The next-generation Airbus A350 XWB is more than half made up of composites.
There are other areas where demand for composites is expected to go up sharply, such as wind turbines and civil infrastructure rehabilitation, as well as in industrial use such as in pipes and pressure vessels.
Fox believes carbon fibre will have a significant role to play in additive manufacturing, citing recent achievements such as the Strati car by Local Motors (printed, reinforced with carbon fibre, and driven at the recent The International Manufacturing Technology Show 2014 in Chicago) and the MarkForged 3D printer.
The link between developing carbon fibre industry and being an advanced economy is real and worth considering, believes Fox.
“I think maybe there’s a correlation and composite materials are a prime example of where advanced manufacturing is heading, and to have a thriving centre in supplying composite components is an indication that, for example, Australia is really performing in that advanced manufacturing path, that we’re really making a contribution there,” she said.
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Slider image: Carbon Nexus
Other images (in order): Carbon Nexus, www.plastics.gl, CST Composites