Scientists in Melbourne crack carbon fibre code

Researchers in Victoria, Australia, have launched a new manufacturing facility which they believe will produce the strongest, lightest carbon fibre in the world; if successful, this innovation could disrupt the entire carbon fibre manufacturing industry.

The breakthrough is the result of collaboration between Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Geelong’s Deakin University.

It further enhances Victoria’s growing reputation as a global centre of excellence in materials research and hi-tech manufacturing for the aerospace and defence sectors, and comes as the state hosts a major international trade expo in that space.

Secret recipe

Stronger than steel and lighter than aluminium, carbon fibre is essential to industries from aeronautical to automotive and sports equipment.

But the material has never before been manufactured in Australia. To produce it is a highly sophisticated industrial process, and over 80 per cent of the world’s output is controlled by just seven manufacturers worldwide, each working to their own secret recipe.

To join this elite club, the CSIRO and Deakin researchers developed their own patented wet spinning line. This equipment is used to convert a sticky polymer goo into thousands of individual fibres, each thinner than a human hair.

After processing, these fibres are woven into carbon cloth that is later set into a resin to produce the finished composite material.

The CSIRO/ Deakin wet spinning line was custom-built by an Italian company with input from Australian researchers. The company liked the design so much that it made another for its own factory, and the machine has been described as “the Ferrari of wet spinning lines”.

And a new polymerisation technology developed by CSIRO is showing early promise in producing a carbon fibre which is stronger and of higher quality than existing products.

‘Carbon valley’

Geelong is rapidly gaining a reputation as Australia’s ‘carbon valley’, as it is also home to several other world leaders in carbon fibre technology.

These include Carbon Revolution, manufacturers of carbon fibre wheels for Ford and other car companies; and Quickstep Technologies, an advanced composites manufacturer partnering with some of the world’s largest aerospace organisations—including the US Department of Defence and Airbus.

Additionally, in February and March, Geelong’s Avalon Airport will play host to the Australian International Airshow 2017, which includes the Aerospace and Defence Exposition.

This event is set to attract senior military officials from across the Asia Pacific region, as well as other international leaders in defence equipment acquisition, civil air transport, air traffic control, general aviation, commercial aviation and aerospace technology.

Value chain

The new CSIRO/Deakin carbon fibre manufacturing facility is a pilot plant with the goal of developing and demonstrating the technology for licensing, and the scientists will be looking for industry partners to scale it up to commercial production.

Director of CSIRO Future Industries Dr Anita Hill said the development is an important milestone.

“This facility means Australia can carry out research across the whole carbon fibre value chain: from molecules, to polymers, to fibre, to finished composite parts,” Dr Hill said.

“Together with Deakin, we’ve created something that could disrupt the entire carbon fibre manufacturing industry.”

Deakin University Vice-Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander said the breakthrough in conjunction with the CSIRO could have worldwide benefits.

“Our two organisations share a long-standing and distinguished bond,’’ Professor den Hollander said.

Together, we’re conducting industry-focused research with a profound and lasting impact, from the communities we serve, through to the world.”

Australia’s Assistant Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Craig Laundy also hailed the breakthrough.

“This is a great example of how collaboration in the Australian research sector can accelerate research, lead innovation and provide new job opportunities,’’ he said.

“Geelong already has a global reputation for industrial innovation. Initiatives such as this enhance that standing.”