By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
“We are building a commercial scale plasma oxidation oven,” Rodney Grubb proclaims proudly of the plasma processing technology that RMX Technologies is now scaling-up for cost-effective production of carbon fiber.
“This is not a science project,” he says. “The technology works, and we are commercializing it.”
The Knoxville company recently executed an exclusive license with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for the technology, co-invented by RMX and ORNL Scientist Felix Paulauskas, that cuts the conventional oxidation stage for carbon fiber production by a factor of 2.5 to 3 times. The results were achieved over a multi-year collaboration between the two organizations, accelerated after RMX, led by its Vice President Truman Bonds, built a one-ton plasma oxidation oven at its West Knoxville facility.
Why is this important? Carbon fiber is a very attractive material to industry for two of its properties – stronger than steel and lighter weight than steel. With looming Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards, carbon fiber can be more widely used in mass-produced automobiles if the cost of making the material is competitive with steel.
That’s just one industry sector that can be significantly impacted by the commercialization work at RMX. There are applications in trucking, wind energy, infrastructure, and storage vessels.
“Plasma oxidation can produce a stronger fiber,” Grubb, who serves as RMX’s President, says. “And, we can either triple throughput in a commercial-size unit or reduce its footprint by two-thirds.” Both options are attractive to manufacturers.
Now, with the process confirmed on RMX’s one-ton unit, the next step is construction of a 175-ton oven which Bonds says is the size of two tractor trailers. This larger unit will allow the company to finalize the design for 1,500-ton ovens, the size needed for widespread commercial deployment of the technology.
“Think of it like a concept car,” Bonds says of the role the 175-ton unit will play as it relates to the much larger oven. “How big of an engine is needed? Is it two or four doors? The 175-ton unit will allow us to make those decisions.”
The design of the 175-ton unit is underway, and Bonds expects to start building it this fall. To complete design and build the first oven, RMX is raising $7 million. Once completed, the company will work with a variety of other enterprises to determine key performance measures for the 1,500-ton unit.
As noted in our late 2015 profile on the company, RMX has spent the last four years focused on oxidation, one part of the process continuum of converting a precursor (raw material) into a usable carbon fiber.
“We’re past talking about a development effort,” Grubb says. “This is a commercialization project.” “We are selling ovens.”
He says the work will result in several significant economic development opportunities for the region, all creating good wage jobs.
“We can manufacture plasma components and the control systems in our facility,” Grubb notes. “We are also evaluating the product (Oxidized PAN Fiber or OPF) coming out of these ovens. It is sellable and, with the right partner, that is a good business.”
The third opportunity, clearly large scale, is the construction of a commercial carbon fiber plant in the region. Several carbon fiber makers and new entrants are evaluating this technology for inclusion in new lines and new facilities. Some of those could be in this region.
“We’re looking at all three options to commercialize the technology with the right partnerships,” said Grubb. RMX has already established an alliance with C. A. Litzler, a manufacturer of carbon fiber production equipment.
“We are looking for additional partners who want to benefit from this technology to make a quality industrial grade carbon fiber that costs less to make and capture a big piece of the growing carbon fiber market” Grubb added.