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10th September 2018, Knoxville, TN

Scaling-up carbon fibres to move the needle for automotive

Rob Klawonn, CEO at 4M Carbon Fiber Corporation. © 4M Carbon Fiber CorporationFor the automotive industry to really buy in to carbon fibre composites, it would take the establishment of ten carbon fibre plants each with an annual capacity of 10,000 tons or more, according to Rob Klawonn, who has just assumed the position of CEO at 4M Carbon Fiber Corporation, based in Knoxville, Tennessee.

As the former president of Teijin Carbon America, Klawonn describes the carbon fibre industry as still in its infancy, but he sees exciting times ahead.

He will now lead 4M’s move from making ovens that others use to produce carbon fibre, to a company actually manufacturing the carbon fibre. To do so, 4M will employ a technology co-developed by RMX Technologies and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

“There’s a nascent market that is just waiting for a company that can scale to sufficient production levels to move the needle,” he says. “The typical carbon fibre line today is anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 tons per year and globally, total demand is about 100,000 tons. Yet, even with that relatively low volume, anyone currently needing to source 2,000 to 3,000 tons of industrial grade fibre should not have a problem.

“It is currently a contribution margin business and the recovery from a decade ago has been long and protracted.”

Shortly after becoming president of Toho Tenax America, the market for carbon fibre collapsed.

“We went from 40 days of inventory to almost 400 days overnight,” Klawonn says, interviewed by teknovation.biz. “It took a year to clear out the warehouse. It’s been a tough market and still is.”

What excites him about 4M Carbon Fiber is the technology at its disposal that enables the company to  produce carbon fibre up to three times faster than conventional processes, use less energy and ultimately result in lower costs. It is the combination of high volume and low-cost which will be transformational for large customers.

By 2024, 4M Carbon Fiber expects to be producing more than 20,000 tons annually at its new flagship site. © 4M Carbon Fiber Corporation

“A few thousand more tons a year is not going to move the needle for GM, Ford, Volkswagen and other car manufacturers,” he says. “They need to see a single plant producing 10,000 tons or more.”

By 2024, 4M Carbon Fiber expects to be producing more than 20,000 tons annually at its new flagship site, using the plasma technology developed by RMX Technologies and ORNL. Plasma permits a faster, more stable oxidation process that results in less time in the oven and higher throughput amounts. All of that means lower costs and higher margins. In addition, plasma will permit the use of a wider range of raw materials, including larger diameter acrylic fibre, opening the door to larger diameter carbon fibres than are typically produced today.

Plasma technology will permit the use of a wider range of raw materials, including larger diameter acrylic fibre, opening the door to larger diameter carbon fibres than are typically produced today. © 4M Carbon Fiber Corporation

“For automotive to really buy-in, we’ll need 10 plants like this,” Klawonn says. “That translates into several billion dollars of capital investment.”

For now, the company is focused on securing funds to build and manufacture carbon fibre while relying on another company to provide the all-important precursor or raw material from which the fibre is made.

The acrylic fibre precursor will be critical to what we do and as  such, 4M Carbon Fiber will eventually need to have its own precursor plant unless it is successful in finding a strong raw material partner capable of growth right alongside 4M.”

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Comments

  • [email protected] 14th September 2018 17:50PM

    The recent achievement at ORNL is a positive challenge to CF technology. The potential of the the benefits of THE INNOVATIVE technology with the low cost of textile fiber has the potential to cut the manufacturing cost by 50% open THE HIGH SERIES markets VIA the atmospheric plasma oxidation technology developed by ORNL and RMX Technologies and adds to the evolution of CN carbonization to other chains provided by proper lignine sources, capable to spin at few thousands m/min... It takes time and convincing strong technologies.

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