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TIA: Tennessee Inventors Association in Knoxville Tenn and Oak Ridge TN
Oak Ridge and Knoxville, TN  

September 2012 Carbon fiber in East Tennessee

Meeting Date: 
September 15, 2012

The September 15 meeting of the TIA featured a presentation by Jesse Smith. Jesse is the Knoxville-Oak Ridge Innovation Valley Director of Technology. He is also involved in the Advanced Composites Employment (ACE) Accelerator. His presentation, Carbon Fiber for Dummies, explained the ins and outs of carbon fiber and its potential.

First, Jesse defined composites. A composite is a material made of multiple separate parts.

He provided a history lesson in composites to illustrate how composites developed and how important they are.

  • Mud bricks is an early example of a composite. Originally, bricks were just made of dried mud. But they could not support much weight without crumbling. Then they added straw to the mud to form a much stronger composite.
  • The early Mongolians laminated wood to make bows. The composite bows are stronger, lighter, and much better than using a single piece of wood for a bow.
  • In 1936 Ray Green pioneered the first fiberglass boats
  • In 1970 the F14 Tomcat used carbon fiber ailerons
  • In 1981 John Watson crashed the first composite carbon fiber monocoque race car

Jesse stressed that it is important to realize that carbon fiber is 5 times stronger, 5 times lighter, and 5 times more expensive by weight than steel.

He showed examples of raw carbon fibers. Carbon fiber is sold in unidirectional fiber bundles called a tow. For example, Jesse described a 24k carbon fiber two which is a bundle of 24,000 fibers.

He also showed examples of carbon fiber weaves and samples of carbon fiber composites that were very light, yet strong. As an example, he passed around a small sample, about 2 by 3 inches and 1/8 inch thick that had carbon fiber on each side. He offered $20 to anyone who could break that thin sample. Even the strongest among us could not even get that thin composite to flex.

Jesse discussed the manufacturing process for carbon fiber. It is a complex chemical process that produces fibers with carbon-carbon bonds. The ORNL focus is on alternate starting materials. They are investigating using lignin, pan, and polyethylene. Another focus of ORNL is different manufacturing methods. A more energy efficient process is very desirable.

A video filed about the same time that he gave the TIA presentation is available on YouTube. The YouTube video Carbon Fiber for Dummies is reproduced below for those who missed the TIA meeting or would like to see the presentation again.