(EDITOR’S NOTE: RMX Technologies and the new 4M Industrial Oxidation affiliated company described below will be on the program during the “Carbon Fiber 2015” conference set for next week in Knoxville.)
By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Visit the webpage of RMX Technologies, and the first few sentences that you read say a great deal about this Knoxville-based company founded more than 25 years ago.
“We push the boundaries of materials science technology through research and development,” the company states on its website. Originally founded as ReMaxCo Technologies, the West Knoxville-based enterprise made a major shift four years ago.
“We acquired an initial group of patents involving the application of a special plasma technology to the manufacture of carbon fiber that I was previously involved with,” Truman Bonds, Vice President for R&D, told us in a recent interview. “Ever since that time, we have focused on the development of our technologies into various products.”
The year was 2011 when RMX Technologies secured the technology portfolio jointly owned by Sentech, Inc. and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). It was also a period of time when the lab and the U.S. Department of Energy were placing significantly increased attention on ways to produce low-cost carbon fiber.
While price was less of a concern when used in multi-million dollar jetliners like the Boeing 787, cost is clearly a significant factor when carbon fiber and carbon composites are integrated into mass market automobiles.
RMX Technologies has spent the last four years focused on one part of the process continuum of converting a precursor (raw material) into a usable carbon fiber. That area has been oxidation, something Bonds describes as “the most time consuming, energy intense and problematic” of the steps.
“We’ve (now) proven the technology to industry,” he says. “They have come in and used it.”
The process that RMX Technologies has developed is three times faster, uses 75 percent less energy, and saves 20 percent on the total cost of carbon fiber when compared to conventional approaches.
Bonds says the approach has been tested with both Polyacrylonitrile, more commonly known as PAN, and lignin. The latter is a material that is usually either burned or disposed of in landfills. If it could be used to produce carbon fiber with the needed properties like strength, it would help address the cost issue.
“Every precursor is different,” Bonds explains, meaning the RMX Technologies process will have to be tweaked for the specific raw material. “Plasma oxidation can be applied across the spectrum up to aerospace grade.”
Four years after the pivot, RMX Technologies is scaling-up its oxidation technology for commercialization. In the process, it has established a new entity – 4M Industrial Oxidation – of which RMX Technologies is a majority owner. This arrangement will allow the new entity to focus on commercializing the oxidation technology for carbon fiber manufacturing, while RMX will pursue additional technology opportunities.
Commercial scalability requires a multi-million dollar investment to develop ovens for full production scales of 1500 metric tons or more. The initial testing with commercial customers was conducted using a one metric ton per year plasma oxidation hub or oven. Over the next two years, 4M will be building a 175-metric ton oven that Bonds says will be at a scale needed to establish commercial viability in the carbon fiber industry.
4M is currently in discussions with several carbon fiber manufacturers, automotive manufacturers, and other end users of fiber products to finalize its commercialization team.
“We have entered into an agreement with C.A. Litzler, a manufacturer of traditional ovens and will jointly develop and construct the new one,” he says. The partner will focus on the oven itself, while 4M will concentrate on the integration of its plasma technology into the oven.
The new facility will be established to demonstrate operation and performance metrics of the 175 metric ton oven to the carbon fiber industry. In addition, the facility will make and sell oxidized PAN fiber.
“It’s not carbon fiber, but OPF, a very marketable flame retardant material,” Bonds explains. The precursor will come from a European supplier of textile grade material, Dralon
“4M is combining Dralon’s low cost precursor with its plasma oxidation process to create a low cost, high performance OPF and carbon fiber product,” Bonds says.
The ultimate goal of 4M is to sell full production scale plasma oxidation ovens with patent-covered licenses to carbon fiber manufacturers.
Bonds has been focused on plasma technology for more than a decade. Other executives of the 15-employee company are Rodney Grubb, President, and long-time area entrepreneur Dick Nixdorf, Chair of the Board.