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ORNL, consortium working on cheaper carbon fiber

Travis Loller, Associated Press

OAK RIDGE, Tenn. (AP) -- A consortium of about 40 companies is working with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop a cheap form of carbon fiber that can be used to replace steel in manufacturing.

Carbon fiber is lightweight and stronger than steel, but currently it is expensive to produce. It is used in products like high-end bicycles. To make it cheaper, the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy awarded a $35 million grant to ORNL for a manufacturing demonstration facility.

At the facility's grand opening on Tuesday, David Danielson, assistant secretary of the Department of Energy, said cheaper carbon fiber could be used to make cars that are 50 percent lighter than current models. He said that alone would increase mileage by 35 percent.

The material also has many other applications, Danielson said, such as the next generation of very long blades for windmills.

Thom Mason, director of the national laboratory, said as the technology improves, manufacturers will find new uses for carbon fiber that no one imagines today.

"At first they will use the new material or process to do what they always did," Mason said. "The interesting thing is, when they start to look at what's possible ... over time products will begin to look different and function differently."

One of the goals of the facility is to improve the manufacturing process so that carbon fiber becomes cheaper to produce. Another goal is to find a way to make it out of cheaper materials. Current carbon fiber is petroleum based and the raw material makes up about half the cost of the final product.

One idea is to make carbon fiber out of a plant product called lignin. It is a waste product of the paper and biofuels industries, so carbon fiber produced from it could be both cheaper and more ecological than petroleum-based carbon fiber.

Danielson said the government has an important role in fostering these innovations, in part because companies no longer invest in research the way they used to.

He said the energy industry invests only 0.3 percent of its revenue into research and development.

Mason added, "The dog food industry spends more on research and development than the energy sector."

ORNL Director of Industrial Partnerships and Economic Development, Tom Rogers, said there are ways for the companies that belong to the consortium to work both individually and together at the facility, but the various projects they propose will be ranked by the Energy Department so that those considered most important get priority.

The Ford Motor Company and Dow Chemicals already are at work on a project that Ford hopes will cut the weight of new cars and trucks by up to 750 pounds by the end of the decade.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who attended the Tuesday dedication, said the plant will give Tennessee a competitive advantage in manufacturing as the state evolves into a leader in auto making.

"This is an important day for Tennessee," he said.