Cheaper carbon fibre cars

A consortium of US researchers are looking into ways of making cheaper carbon fibre to manufacture lighter, more fuel-efficient cars.

Scientists at the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) are working with Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler to lower the cost of carbon fibre composites by using high-volume, renewable sources of carbon fibre feedstocks.

Carbon fibre is one-fifth the weight of steel yet just as strong and rigid, which makes it ideal for structural or semi-structural components in automobiles. Replacing half the ferrous metals in current automobiles could reduce a vehicle’s weight by 60 per cent and fuel consumption by 30 per cent, according to some studies. The resulting gains in fuel efficiency, made in part because smaller engines could be used with lighter vehicles, would also reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions by 10 per cent to 20 per cent.

The team is working on making carbon fibre a more affordable option by optimising manufacturing and spinning processes for alternative forms of carbon fibre precursors from renewable sources, such as recycled plastics, lignin from wood pulp and cellulose.

They are also developing an efficient carbon fibre oxidation process, which would significantly increase production and lower cost of this raw material. One promising possibility is plasma processing technology to rapidly oxidise precursor fibres. ORNL is working with Atmospheric Glow Technologies to generate and use plasmas in the open atmosphere instead of in a carefully controlled environment such as in inert gases and at very low pressures.

ORNL is establishing a modular carbon fibre research pilot line to evaluate these processes on a comparable basis against conventional industrial processes.