As wonderful a material as carbon fiber is, there are some inherent problems with its manufacturing that has thus far limited its use. Among those problems is the high cost of producing it. It takes a tremendous amount of heat energy to convert strings of carbon molecules into fibers that can be turned into carbon fiber fabrics and tow, making manufacturing expensive. That may change if an energy project now underway in California yields the expected results.
Southern California Gas Co. has procured federal funding to work on a new hydrogen producing technology in partnership with West Virginia University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The technology seeks to create hydrogen fuel through processing natural gas. One of the byproducts of the process is carbon, and Southern California Gas says they can use it to create carbon fiber materials.
Motivated by Costs
While few details of the process being used by Southern California Gas are known, we do know that their desire to manufacture carbon fiber products is motivated by cost. Just as manufacturing carbon fiber is expensive, so is the process of creating hydrogen from natural gas. Project engineers hope to be able to sell their carbon fiber materials in order to offset some of the costs of producing hydrogen.
Should they succeed, it would mean a couple of things. First and foremost, it will result in an expanded hydrogen market that could be key to further developing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Processing methane to produce hydrogen appears to yield pretty good returns; there could be a glut if this works.
It would also mean an increased supply of carbon fiber products, including the much-hyped carbon nanotube. A significant increase in supply would have a commensurate impact on prices, making the widespread use of carbon fiber materials throughout aviation, automotive manufacturing, and other industries more likely.
How interesting that the high costs of one industry are providing the motivation to do something that could reduce the costs of another. If the Southern California Gas plan actually works, it’s going to be something to behold.
Advancing Carbon Nanotubes
The entire carbon fiber industry will benefit from a boost in production should the California project succeed. But according to a January 8 post on the NGI website, project leaders are especially excited about the future of carbon nanotubes. Also known simply as CNTs, they have a higher tensile strength and rigidity than standard carbon fiber fabric or tow. That makes them ideal for applications where standard carbon fiber is just short of being strong enough.
How much would advancements in carbon nanotubes affect the average American? In the short term, not much. As Rock West Composites explains, carbon nanotubes are nowhere near ready for prime time. It is going to take a lot more research and significant investment to come up with nanotubes exhibiting commercial viability. That does not mean the California project will not have an impact, though.
Increasing the supply of carbon fiber materials will mean a lot of things to companies like Rock West. If the supply were expanded enough, prices for everything from prepregs to carbon fabrics and finished parts would react positively. Distributors would pay less as would fabricators, manufacturers, retailers and, ultimately, end users.
Only time will tell if converting methane to hydrogen is economically viable. If researchers are able to utilize their catalyst to produce carbon fiber materials out of process byproducts, selling those materials will help both the carbon fiber industry and make the process more attractive. That could mean good things down the road.