Three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond is partnering with carbon fiber manufacturing pioneer Connie Jackson and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) to bring what’s dubbed the most significant development in carbon fiber production in over 50 years to global markets.
LeMond Composites, a new company offering solutions for high volume, low cost carbon fiber, has secured a licensing agreement with U.S. Department of Energy’s ORNL. The agreement will make Oak Ridge-based LeMond Composites the first company to offer this new industry-disrupting carbon fiber to the transportation, renewable energy, and infrastructure markets. Jackson and several of her ORNL teammates joined LeMond Composites in 2016.
LeMond Composites plans to establish production capacity of 4000 tonnes annually. In terms of production equipment, LeMond Composites has a working relationship with RMX Technologies and is very interested in their plasma technology. “We have not completed our evaluation of their equipment for our process,” notes Jackson, CEO of LeMond Composites. “But, it is likely that we will incorporate the RMX technology as part of our equipment and development portfolio.” RMX previously licensed carbon fiber production technology from ORNL.
|L to R- Ed Western, ORNL; Nic Wegener, President LeMond Technologies; and Greg LeMond, Chairman and co-CEO of LeMond Companies and a composite part fabricated using the new low-cost carbon fiber; Photo credit, ORNL’s Jason Richards.|
“We can provide the advantages of our carbon fiber to many industries by improving strength, stiffness, and weight reduction. If you imagine replacing steel, aluminum, and fiberglass with our carbon fiber, you begin to understand the scope of the potential market,” adds Jackson. “Our process will have global applications and we are ready to move forward with scaling the technology.”
Besides marketing the carbon fiber to other companies, LeMond will also manufacture some select composite components for bicycles, transportation and wind power applications as well as bike frames. Pultrusion will be one of the processes employed.
A breakthrough process invented by Jackson 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. 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%.
“We have assembled the only team in the world that has executed this proven technology which uniquely positions us to deliver a successful outcome for our customers and stakeholders,” said Greg LeMond. “From experience, I know that having the right team is a distinct business advantage.”
The biggest obstacle to widespread use of carbon fiber has been its high cost. This new process will reportedly allow high volume, cost sensitive industries around the world to reap the benefits of carbon fiber composites at a fraction of the cost while incorporating chemistry geared toward recyclability.
“The development of this new process demonstrates the value of coupling basic and applied research, which is a hallmark of ORNL, and it underscores the Department of Energy’s commitment to addressing our nation’s most pressing energy challenges,” said Thom Mason, Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director. “The Department’s sustained investments in scientific research and development and in specialized facilities such as CFTF are enabling a variety of applications that will lead to improvements in fuel efficiency and position U.S. industry for global success.”
ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility began operations in 2012, supported by the Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing and Vehicle Technologies offices, to demonstrate the possibility of low-cost carbon fiber at a semi-production scale.
Growing demand from the automotive industry is due in large part to the global push to increase the fuel economy of nearly every vehicle produced. In the USA, the demand is being driven by the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. These standards demand a fleet-wide average fuel economy of 54.5 mpg by 2025. The single best way to improve fuel economy is to reduce the weight of the cars and their component parts. ORNL and Jackson’s remarkable breakthrough technology puts CAFE standards within reach, ensuring cost-effective weight reduction through the use of high quality carbon fiber without sacrificing the strength and safety of the steel it replaces.
“We understand the growing demand from the automotive industry and we are currently in negotiations with several of the world’s leading automotive brands and their suppliers,” said LeMond.
For the wind power industry, carbon fiber can be used to make turbine blades lighter and stiffer, thereby increasing the efficiency of the system. Previously, carbon fiber was too expensive for maximum utilization in this market.
Additional sectors, including shipping, air travel and marine, could see significant energy savings through the use of carbon fiber in the light weighting of their containers, planes, and ships. Carbon fiber composites can also be used to build, reinforce, or repair bridges, tunnels, commercial and residential structures.
“As a result of the affordability of this carbon fiber we believe that world-wide mass adoption will be inevitable. We are positioning ourselves to grow and meet this demand by locating our company in Tennessee, a state that through Governor Haslam and Commissioner Boyd’s forward-thinking programs like Tennessee Promise, will provide a steady stream of quality employees for our company,” said LeMond. ”Our close proximity to ORNL adds a value beyond measure and we are looking forward to future collaborations with them. Additionally, with the input of the University of Tennessee, The Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI), and the emerging composites corridor, I believe the Knoxville area will become the world hub for carbon fiber in the future. On a personal note, the bike riding in this area is incredible.”
LeMond Composites plans to expand its campus by building its first carbon fiber production line at their recently purchased facility at 103 Palladium Way in Oak Ridge. The facility is strategically located immediately adjacent to ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility. The first commercially available product will be ready in Q1 of 2018.