Ever since the discovery of carbon fibre in the late 1800s, when Thomas Edison used carbon fibres to create light bulbs, it’s been considered an extraordinary material. Thanks to its low density, light weight properties, super strength and heat resistance it’s gone on to revolutionise performance in several industries from motorsport to the military.
But carbon fibre has one significant limitation – cost. Up until now, it has been considered a niche product, with its use largely limited to items with high price tags, such as luxury, high-performance cars. But new technology that increases the efficiency of carbon fibre production will enable carbon fibre to be produced at much lower cost, making superior quality products more accessible to consumers.
Developed at Deakin University’s world-leading carbon fibre research centre, Carbon Nexus, by PhD student Maxime Maghe and Carbon Nexus General Manager Steve Atkiss, the breakthrough technology has been licenced as part of a $58 million deal with carbon fibre manufacturing company, LeMond Composites.
The specialised carbon fibre production machinery required to facilitate the new technology is expected to cost about 50 per cent less than current equipment and reduces the production process time from around 80 minutes to less than 15 minutes.
But Maxime says that the discovery has more benefits than just reduced cost and time.
‘By combining industry experience and fundamental research, we’ve discovered a novel technique to manufacture carbon fibre in a more economical and environmentally conscious way,’ says Maxime.
‘The technology could potentially reduce the cost of the carbon fibre manufacture and allow its expansion towards higher production throughput. In turn, high carbon fibre production throughput would potentially reduce the price of the raw material. Additionally, and importantly, the technology allows the production of more environmentally friendly carbon fibre.’
The reduced environmental impact is an additional benefit given that perfecting the art of efficiently recycling carbon fibre is still a work in progress. Initial indications suggest that the new technology could reduce the energy used in carbon fibre production by as much as 75 per cent and mean a 70 per cent reduction in size of a carbon fibre processing plant due to the smaller equipment footprint.
'The technology could potentially reduce the cost of the carbon fibre manufacture and allow its expansion towards higher production throughput.'
According to Maxime, the discovery means that carbon fibre will become much more commonplace in a wide range of every day items.
‘Low cost carbon fibre will make it more accessible and allow further usage in a range of markets,’ says Maxime.
‘Any item that would benefit from lighter, stronger and safer materials will be improved if it is made from carbon fibre.’
Some industries that Maxime says are set to benefit from more affordable carbon fibre include:
‘Carbon fibre is already a staple material in high-end vehicles such as Ferraris and Lamborghinis. But lowering the cost of carbon fibre would potentially facilitate its use in more affordable vehicles. This would occur in a staged approach; first by replacing small pieces of a “standard” car, then potentially moving towards replacing an entire chassis of a vehicle, which is usually made from steel. Incorporating carbon fibre into cars would allow the cars to be more energy efficient, while providing similar or higher performances,’ says Maxime.
‘Carbon fibre is used as a strengthening material in the construction of various super-structures. For example, it has been used to reinforce Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge. Thanks to its flexibility, it is also being used to develop earthquake-resistant buildings. New techniques such as pultrusion are enabling the manufacture of beams and timber made from carbon fibres. With cheaper carbon fibre now able to be developed, further expansion is expected in this field,’ says Maxime.
‘So far, the use of carbon fibre in sporting equipment has been limited to high-end products. For example, carbon fibre bicycles have been available on the market for a long time – the first of which was built in 1986. However, such items are often extremely expensive, costing up to $20,000. By providing cheaper raw material, the price of high-end equipment like skis, bicycles and golf clubs is expected to become more affordable,’ says Maxime.
‘It would not be surprising to see carbon fibre used in an increasing number of common furniture applications. As an example, a bed frame is often quite heavy and difficult to move. The incorporation of carbon fibre into the structure could help to reduce the weight of the item, enabling easier transportation without sacrificing the quality or durability. With cheaper carbon fibre new products and designs could be created, enabling new markets to develop,’ says Maxime.
Learn more about the cutting-edge research being undertaken by Deakin’s $34 million carbon fibre facility, Carbon Nexus.
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