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Scientists experimenting with carbon fiber

4:38 PM, Aug 11, 2011   |    comments
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Oak Ridge National Lab has brought together a group of scientists, businesses and manufactures to expand the use of high tech material.

The group is working on new ways to make the material and expand its use.

Carbon fibers look like fine black hairs, but thousands of them in a strand are incredibly strong. "It's strength is greater than high performance steel but weighs about one fifth," explained ORNL Group Leader Robert Norris. "That enables you to make structures that are significantly lighter than steel structures that still have the same performance."

"Our parent company makes this in Japan for Honda Motor corporation," said President of Toho Tenax Rob Klawonn. A drive shaft is an example of how carbon fibers are being used to cut weight on cars. 

It also makes airplanes lighter, wind turbines more efficient and power lines stronger and lighter which means energy savings. The scientists are making carbon fibers on a small scale. 

They are experimenting with alternative raw materials and new ways to make it. "We're looking to make carbon fiber much less expensive that would fit into these energy applications," said Norris. The existing labs can turn out close to 100 pounds of product a year. 

A new facility under construction will be much bigger. "We're developing a center off site that will be able to produce 25 tons a year of carbon fiber for evaluation," said Norris. The Toho Tenax Plant in Rockwood is cranking out tons of carbon fiber every year for the global market. 

If the labs can find ways to make carbon fiber cheaper and faster and expand its use it could bring jobs to East Tennessee. "We could see quadrupling our capacity within ten years which means instead of 180 employees we'd be 300, 350 maybe 400 employees," said Klawonn. 

The increased use of carbon fiber in vehicles, airplanes and energy production could even help reduce our need for oil. Construction is underway in Oak Ridge on a new lab facility. They hope to be in it by February of 2013.

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