LeMond Composites announces carbon fiber plant opening in Oak Ridge, brings 242 jobs

The old Theragenics facility in Oak Ridge will soon be getting a facelift thanks to a $125 million investment by LeMond Composites. This announcement is not only opening the door for East Tennesseans by offering 242 high-paying jobs but also for the state’s economy.

lemond-cycles-2017-carbon-fiber-bicycles-comingLeMond Composites is part of LeMond Companies, a group led by three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond.

Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd alongside company officials announced LeMond Composites will begin making a new industry-disrupting carbon fiber for the transportation, renewable energy and infrastructure markets.

Carbon fiber is a strong, lightweight material used for advanced composites in a variety of applications including making both bikes and vehicles more efficient by making them weigh less.

LeMond Composites “Grail” carbon fiber is low-cost and high-quality and its changing the industry because not only is it more affordable but the way it’s produced uses substantially less energy compared to other carbon fiber manufacturing processes.

With the invention of “Grail” carbon fiber, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards of 54.5 mpg by 2025 are now achievable.

Photo Credit: Composites Manufacturing Magazine

Photo Credit: Composites Manufacturing Magazine

The former professional road racing cyclist says he was exposed to his first carbon fiber bike 30 years ago. Just as weight in a car requires more energy consumption, riding like LeMond did requires more energy if the bicycle is heavier.

Today, LeMond Composites has executed a license with ORNL for what the company describes as “one of the most significant developments in carbon fiber production in over 50 years.”

A breakthrough process invented by Connie Jackson, Co-CEO of LeMond Composites and a research team at ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF) will reduce production costs by more than 50% relative to the lowest cost industrial grade carbon fiber. Incredibly this new carbon fiber has the mechanical properties of carbon fiber costing three times as much. Until now, manufacturing carbon fiber was an extremely energy-intensive process. This new method reduces energy consumed during production by up to 60%.

LeMond plans to break ground on the new facility in January and the first commercially available product will be ready in the first quarter of 2018.

Knoxville-based RMX Technologies Receives Exclusive Carbon Fiber Processing License from ORNL

The key to dramatically reducing the time and energy needed in the production of carbon fiber is found in East Tennessee. Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has signed an exclusive licensing agreement with Knoxville-based RMX Technologies for carbon fiber production. ORNL announced the agreement in early May.


New plasma oxidation oven rendering, courtesy of RMX Technologies.

According to the media release, the ORNL/RMX plasma processing technology is a new approach to the oxidation stage of carbon fiber production in which polymer materials are oxidized (or stabilized) before carbonization. During oxidation, the thermoplastic precursor is converted to a thermoset material that can no longer be melted. Oxidation is the most time-consuming phase of the multistep carbon fiber conversion process.

Lowering the cost and expanding the use of strong, lightweight carbon fiber will improve the energy efficiency of products including cars, trucks, and aircraft without sacrificing safety.

“In conventional systems, it generally takes between 80 and 120 minutes for oxidation,” said ORNL co-inventor Felix Paulauskas. “We found a way to cut the time by a factor of 2.5 to 3 times, so we can process fiber in 25 to 35 minutes.”

Compared to conventional oxidation techniques, the team’s plasma oxidation technology reduces unit energy consumption by 75 percent and lowers production costs by 20 percent, while maintaining or improving the resulting carbon fiber quality. Plasma oxidation can be used to produce all grades of carbon fiber from low-end industrial to high-end aerospace grades.

Paulauskas developed the scientific concept for the plasma oxidation method eight years ago and worked with RMX Technologies to develop prototypes and demonstrate the technology at the lab scale. In 2014, RMX constructed a 1 ton plasma oxidation oven at its facility and transitioned from development to scaling and commercialization the following year.

“We are commercializing this technology with our industrial partners to manufacture low-cost carbon fiber and create quality jobs,” RMX Technologies president Rodney Grubb said. “Through our partnership with ORNL, we have proven 75-percent energy savings, we make a quality fiber, and the equipment uses less than half the space. One of our carbon fiber production partners told us, ‘Plasma oxidation is not a science project anymore. The technology works.’”

For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.


ORNL Carbon Fiber Production Method Helps Auto Industry, Advanced Energy in Tennessee

When TAEBC Charter member, Oak Ridge National Laboratory announced this week the demonstration of a production method estimated to reduce the cost of carbon fiber by as much as 50 percent, that spelled good news for the auto industry’s quest to meet a national fleet-wide average of 54.5 mpg by 2025.

Carbon fiber, up until now, has been too expensive to produce but needed in order to make lightweight lower gas mileage automobiles. With ORNL’s announcement, lower cost means increased use of carbon fiber in vehicle production.

ORNL’s production method is also expected to reduce the energy used in production by more than 60 percent.  Carbon fiber is produced by converting a carbon-containing polymer precursor fiber to pure carbon fiber through a carefully controlled series of heating and stretching steps.

After extensive analysis and successful prototyping by industrial partners, ORNL reports that it is making the new method available for licensing. According to a release from ORNL, the lower cost method was demonstrated at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility and builds on more than a decade of research in the area.

Carbon Fiber Technology Facility

ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (Source: ORNL)

The production method is expected to accelerate adoption of carbon fiber composites in high-volume industrial applications not only for the automobile industry, but for wind turbines, compressed gas storage and building infrastructure. ORNL is working as a technology partner in IACMI – The Composites Institute – to enable the use of low-cost carbon fiber composites in a wide range of next-generation clean energy products, from offshore wind turbines that lower the cost of electricity to high pressure tanks for the storage of natural gas.

In the official ORNL release, Lab Director Thom Mason said, “This accomplishment underscores the Department of Energy and Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s commitment to addressing our nation’s most pressing energy challenges, and the payoff could be significant. Automakers, consumers and the environment will realize tremendous benefits because of the investment just a few years ago in the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility.”

This is good news for advanced energy and TAEBC. As the state’s champion of advanced energy as a job creation and economic development strategy, TAEBC congratulates ORNL on achieving this production milestone that will not only strengthen the industry but further our mission of gaining a fair share of the global $1.3 trillion advanced energy market.

ORNL will accept license applications for the low-cost carbon fiber process through May 15. Licensing information for manufacturers in the U.S. is available here.