This EArly-concept Grant for Exporatory Research (EAGER) project will evaluate the processing of carbon fiber using a new precursor that will result in a simpler, less energy intensive and more cost-effective manufacturing process as compared to the most common process based on polyacrylonitrile (PAN). Carbon fibers are the strongest and stiffest materials per unit weight, thus carbon fiber-reinforced polymer composites see a variety of low-weight high performance uses such as in automotive, aerospace or civil infrastructure applications. Carbon fiber is a key ingredient for our nation's defense and energy future but domestic supply is limited because of cheaper overseas supplies. Low-cost domestic supply of carbon fiber of comparable or superior quality to that currently available overseas will enable the manufacture of carbon fiber-reinforced composites and give US manufacturers a competitive advantage in the global economy. This award supports a feasibility study for the development of a new precursor that is expected to simplify the manufacture of carbon fiber. The multi-disciplinary approach will help broaden the participation of underrepresented groups in research and positively impact engineering education.
In the present research, a rigid-rod, linear polyaromatic polymer of known chemistry will be evaluated as an alternate precursor. The precursor contains only carbon and hydrogen atoms and has very high thermal stability. It is therefore anticipated that an additional stabilization step will not be necessary and that the conversion to carbon fiber will be simpler and less energy intensive compared to the current manufacturing process. The precursor will be synthesized starting with an enzymatic route. Precursor fibers will be spun and the structure and orientation of the fibers will be controlled by simultaneous heating and stretching. The fibers will then be pyrolyzed under tension at high temperatures and inert atmosphere. Preliminary data will be obtained to support a hypothesis-driven research plan for a follow-on fundamental research project where the effect of process parameters on the micro-structure and ultimately the mechanical, electrical and thermal properties of the resulting carbon fibers will be studied. If successful, this study can transform the way carbon fiber is manufactured.