Plasma Oxidation Seen as Key to Affordable Carbon Fiber
At a price of between $10 and $15 per pound, carbon fiber is still too expensive for some industries needing mass-produced products at a fraction of the cost. If carbon fiber manufacturers could get the price down to about $5 per pound, they could establish the kind of mass production that will enable the car industry and others to make better use of composite parts. Enter plasma oxidation.
Manufacturing carbon fiber is a costly and time-consuming process. The first stage of the three-stage manufacturing process is oxidation; it is the slowest and costliest part of the process. Now it appears as though plasma oxidation could be the answer manufacturers have been looking for. Plasma oxidation could be the key to mass producing carbon fiber products at a much lower price point.
An Explanation of Oxidation
Rock West Composites, a Salt Lake City, Utah dealer of composite materials, explains that oxidation is the process of taking polyacrylonitrile (PAN) polymers and subjecting them to high heat in order to stabilize them. This stabilization is necessary so that the fibers do not burn away in the second and third stages.
Traditional oxidation takes anywhere between 75 and 120 minutes using an oven that gradually pulls roles of PAN through it. Requiring such high heat for such a long amount of time uses a tremendous amount of energy. This is where much of the cost of carbon fiber manufacturing comes in.
Unfortunately, there is no way around the oxidation process. If PAN is not fully and completely oxidized, it will not survive the next two stages of processing that can expose it to temperatures in excess of 1500°C. The fibers would simply burn away and that would be the end of it. So getting oxidation right is critical.
About Plasma Oxidation
Plasma oxidation itself is not a new principal. It has been used for quite some time to apply coatings to metals. But a handful of companies located in the U.S. and Europe have discovered a way to use the same process for oxidizing carbon fiber. With plasma oxidation, there is no need to run huge ovens that burn a tremendous amount of energy.
Manufacturing using plasma oxidation can reduce process time from 120 minutes down to 30. At the same time, plasma oxidation uses about one-third of the total energy. The icing on the cake is that the product that comes out the other end of the oxidation chamber is superior in quality compared to similar material oxidized in a traditional oven.
Rock West says this is a game changer. If those companies already using plasma oxidation can get enough financial muscle behind them to back what they are doing, those companies can lead the way to designing and implementing a mass production process for manufacturing carbon fiber.
Already Some Interest
Hopes of bringing the cost of carbon fiber down by way of plasma oxidation are not mere fantasy. There is already tremendous industry interest, as well as interest coming from the auto-making sector. According to Composites World, one Tennessee company now going through the rebranding process is already in discussions with a number of car companies and carbon fiber manufacturers in hopes of getting the funding they need to establish carbon fiber mass production.
If that company is able to find some financial partners, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t, low-cost carbon fiber manufacturing could be up and running by the end of the year. What a difference that would make in bringing the cost of carbon fiber and other composites closer to the desired $5 per pound.