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Imagine a strip of material one inch wide and one-tenth of an inch thick. Now imagine a stack of six cars. Finally, imagine lifting that 30,000-pound stack off the ground with that ribbon of material. And the material doesn't break.
Aerospace manufacturers, defense contractors and others have only been able to imagine a lightweight composite material with that strength, but a new partnership involving N.C. A&T State University spin-off Advaero Technologies may help make just such a material available in the near future.
Advaero is part of a consortium along with Stanford University and French engineered textile firm Chomarat to bring the so-called "new carbon fiber" or NCF to market, according to Advaero CEO Greg Bowers. Chomarat's North American operations are based in Anderson, S.C.
Under the arrangement, Chomarat will produce the material designed by Stanford using Advaero's technology. Bowers declined to detail the financial aspects of the consortium.
If early indications of NCF's tensile strength prove accurate — that's how hard you can pull on something before it breaks — it will represent about a three-fold improvement of the strength-to-weight ratio over current technologies, Bowers said.
"What that means is, if you make something with the same weight of material, you'd be able to make it three times stronger, or you could equal the current strength at one-third the weight," Bowers aid.
Carbon composite materials are typically made up of carbon fibers and a polymer resin that are combined using various molding methods to create the end product.
The method that produces the strongest materials, Bowers said, is to heat the composite materials under pressure in huge oven-like autoclaves, but the equipment for that process is extremely expensive. More commonly, the molding takes place under a vacuum that is easier to produce but results in a weaker composite.
The technology Advaero licensed from N.C. A&T when it spun out from the university in 2008 is called HVartm, for Heated Vacuum-Assisted Resin Transfer Molding. HVartm applies low levels of heat to the vacuum process, resulting in strengths near what is produced in an autoclave without the high cost, the company says.
Separately, Stanford University researchers recently discovered a carbon composite formulation that reduces the number of layers of carbon fibers needed to produce a particular tensile strength, but they lacked an appropriate method of infusing the resin. They sought technologies from several different companies before choosing HVartm, according to Bowers.
Putting it to work
Advaero was spun out from N.C. A&T in 2008 to commercialize the resin infusion process, and the deal with Chomarat and Stanford represents a great opportunity to put it to work, said Wayne Szafranski, assistant vice chancellor for outreach and economic development for the university.
"I use the analogy of traditional photography," Szafranski said. "You can have a camera and film and they're both nice, but they don't do anything until you put them together."
The material still needs to be proven and produced, but there is already interest in the product including from VX Aerospace, a Morganton company that manufactures and designs advanced composites.
President and Chief Engineer Bob Skillen said the NCF material will allow for whole new levels of high-strength, low-weight materials. Based on its potential, the company recently relaunched a project for the U.S. Marine Corps to produce composite floor panels for the H-46 helicopter that had been canceled because current technologies couldn't meet the combined requirements of strength, weight and cost.
"With this new material we'd be able to meet those requirements, so we've gone back to say, ‘If we can do this now, are you still interested?'" Skillen said. VX is working on an additional proposal using NCF for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. Other potential users of the technology could range from car manufacturers to jumbo-jet makers, or other applications where material strength and weight are important factors.
If NCF lives up to its potential, it could be a big boost for the Triad's aerospace cluster if Chomarat decides to manufacture the material in the region, which is a possibility according to Bowers and Szafranski. Chomarat officials did not return a call seeking comment, but Szafranski said such a decision would probably be a few years away.
The partnership won't result in a big increase in jobs at Advaero, which is currently based at the Joint School for Nanoscience and Nanoengineering in Greensboro and has four employees and five interns, Bowers said.
But the company does intend to develop its own manufacturing capacity over time. It's currently focusing on applications in the area of wind-turbine energy production and is also developing new products making use of high-temperature nanofibers.
"We want to move this technology forward as quickly as we can," Bowers said.
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Next Level Communications
For Piedmont Triad Partnership
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