09 January 2012 00:00 [Source: ICB]
Innovation in carbon fiber processing technology could lead to a breakthrough in the cost competitiveness of the material and consequent growth in applications
The advancement of carbon fiber technology offers the potential for growth in the automotive sector, where use of carbon fiber is currently prohibitive due to manufacturing cost.
Carbon fiber is used in roof frames, inner door panels, and under the hood in autos
"We anticipate that our material science capabilities combined with strategic partnerships will be key enablers of the carbon fiber composite systems and solutions in the automotive sector," he adds.
To that end, Dow has development partnerships with Turkey-based AKSA, a world-leading acrylics fiber maker; and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the US Department of Energy's largest science and energy laboratory and its lead in low-cost carbon fiber research and development.
The ORNL collaboration is progressing well, says the Dow official. Dow's material science capability and ORNL's material processing capability are being leveraged to find alternative precursor and carbon fiber methodologies. The goal is to develop a lower-cost manufacturing process for carbon fiber.
"Dow's primary efforts are focused on the development of a polyolefin-based precursor," the official says.
The precursor is the raw material used to make carbon fiber. About 90% of the carbon fibers produced today are made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN). The remaining 10% are made from rayon or petroleum pitch.
Development through Dow's collaboration with ORNL is in its early stages, but Dow is continuing to make progress against the milestones that were mutually agreed with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) based upon funding provided to catalyze these efforts.
In February 2010, Dow received a $5m (€4m) grant from the Centers of Energy Excellence (COEE) program through the MEDC to help accelerate manufacturing process innnovation to make carbon fiber cost-effective for industrial uses, such as wind and transportation.
Upon success, the collaboration will help in transforming and diversifying Michigan's economy through alternative energy generation, as well as through manufacturing in the wind and transportation industries.
Meanwhile, with AKSA, Dow signed a deal on December 20 to form a joint venture to manufacture and globally commercialize carbon fiber. The companies signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) in June 2011.
"Through this agreement, both companies announced plans to work together to explore opportunities to create fully integrated production facilities for the manufacture and global supply of carbon fibers and derivatives," says the Dow official.
During the period of the MOU, AKSA and Dow have been identifying, evaluating and discussing various opportunities related to the formation of the new venture, including various manufacturing and commercialization plans.
AKSA has been commercially producing carbon fiber since 2009, and the joint venture will continue to grow these existing efforts, according to Dow.
The US spot price range for acrylonitrile (ACN), a major feedstock for carbon fiber, fell an average of $65/tonne (€50/tonne) in the week ended December 16. The decline was due to decreasing demand, availability of imported material and declining feedstock costs, as assessed by ICIS.
Because of decreased ACN demand, US producers have cut back their production rates just enough to meet customer demand.
ACN prices were reported as stronger in Asia. A US ACN producer said Asian ACN prices were around $1,900/tonne CFR (cost and freight), whereas they were about $1,800/tonne in the US Gulf.
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