Extremely strong, lightweight and durable, carbon fiber is increasingly being used as a substitute for steel and other metals and materials used in manufacturing – manufacturing in the clean energy sector in particular. From wind turbine blades to automobiles and hydrogen storage containers, the Department of Energy (DOE), as per direction provided by programs such as President Obama's Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, is a motive force in realizing advances that are forming the basis of a vital and growing green US economy.
Having established the first carbon fiber manufacturing facility of its kind in the US – the Vehicles Technologies Office's (VTO) Carbon Fiber Manufacturing Facility (CFMF) at Oak Ridge National Laboratory – the DOE is now aiming to drive production costs lower by fostering the development of carbon fiber manufactured from renewable, non-food-based biomass feedstocks, such as corn stover.
If successful, these new processes would not only help drive down the cost of manufacturing carbon fiber, they could obviate the need for petroleum-based and natural gas feedstocks in the manufacturing process, thereby realizing substantial reductions in carbon and greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon fiber from renewable, non-food biomass
The DOE on February 3 announced it was providing up “to $12 million in funding to advance the production of cost-competitive, high-performance carbon fiber material from renewable non-food-based feedstocks such as agricultural residues and woody biomass.” As the DOE elaborated,
“Carbon fiber derived from biomass may be less costly to manufacture and offer greater environmental benefits than traditional carbon fiber produced from natural gas or petroleum. This funding supports the Energy Department’s Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, which is a cross-cutting effort to ensure U.S. manufacturers remain competitive in the global marketplace.”
Replacing steel and other metals with carbon fiber can yield substantial benefits, including improving performance and lowering the costs of a wide range of manufactured products, particularly in the fast growing renewable energy and clean technology sectors.
Carbon fiber: Stronger, lighter, cheaper, and Greener
For instance, the DOE is working with auto manufacturers to make use of carbon fiber. The results are cars, trucks and other vehicles that are stronger and lighter in weight, and hence have greater fuel efficiency. “Reducing a vehicle's weight by just 10 percent can improve fuel economy by 6 percent to 8 percent,” the DOE notes.
“Innovative carbon fiber composites could reduce passenger car weight by half and improve fuel efficiency by nearly 35 percent.”
The DOE is also working with US wind turbine manufacturers to use carbon fiber in the production of stronger, lighter and larger wind turbine blades. Expect advances being made in this area to be put to use offshore as the drive to deploy wind turbines in US coastal waters gains momentum.
The DOE is also working with innovative US manufacturers, such as Nebraska's Hexagon Lincoln, which is manufacturing carbon fiber composite trailers capable of delivering clean-burning hydrogen fuel for use in fuel cell vehicles across the country. Hexagon Lincoln's lightweight container vehicles “can haul more than 720 kilograms of hydrogen, more than double the amount that can be carried in traditional steel tube trailers,” according to the DOE, whose Fuel Cell Technologies Office provided funding that helped Hexagon Lincoln develop the trailers.
As the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) highlights in a recent press release,
“With the DOE's assistance, Hexagon has more than doubled its workforce and added a fourth shift for 24-hour/7-days-a-week operation to accommodate growing demand for its tanks.”
Those interested in finding out more about DOE renewable carbon fiber funding opportunities should check out the agency's Funding Opportunity Exchange.
Image credit: DOE/Hexagon Lincolin