Warren Hunt

Fiber-reinforced polymer materials have long been recognized as a specialty class of materials, providing solutions in defense, high-end recreational products, and other applications where performance is more critical than cost. In particular, these materials are attractive because they are lighter, stronger, and stiffer than unreinforced polymers or conventional metals, with the additional advantage that their properties and form can be tailored to meet the needs of a specific application.  Thanks to advances in manufacturing that have lowered the cost of fiber-reinforced polymers, these materials are now being used increasingly for a greater variety of applications, including within commercial aircrafts and automotives. It looks like progress will soon pick up significantly due to both commercial and government-driven initiatives.

A recent Request for Information from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) could support these forthcoming advances and increase the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing. Specifically, the AMO Request for Information asks responders to identify the R&D needs, market challenges, and supply chain issues that must be overcome to enable high-speed, low-cost, and energy-efficient manufacturing processes for fiber-reinforced polymers. The information provided should also include strategies for recycling and reduced energy and emissions.

Reduced fuel consumption, which is mentioned as a target within the Request for Information, can be achieved by integrating lightweight, high-performance structures like fiber-reinforced polymers into passenger cars and light trucks. However, the materials competition in this area is fierce, with steel and aluminum vying with polymer composites to fulfill CAFE-driven opportunities for advanced body-in-white structural applications. While it appears that steel, especially through developments in Advanced High Strength Steels (AHSS), is still the king-of-the-hill, steel’s weight-saving potential will eventually top out. Aluminum is expected to be the next wave in vehicle lightweighting, with fiber-reinforced polymers next on the horizon.

A major impediment to the more immediate application of fiber-reinforced polymers is cost, not only of raw materials but also of manufacturing. Both government initiatives (e.g., the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at ORNL) and commercial partnerships between fiber suppliers and auto companies have worked to reduce materials cost, driven mainly by efforts to decrease the cost of carbon fibers. Additional work will need to focus on improving the speed of manufacturing to enable high-volume, more cost-effective processes that will allow polymer composites to move from integration in largely specialty vehicle use to mainstream vehicles produced at larger scales. That’s why the recent AMO Request for Information is right on target.

It’s clear that fiber-reinforced polymers have an important role to play.  Our recent work in updating the plastics and composites roadmap for the auto industry in support of the American Chemistry Council is one way that we have been working to support advances in fiber-reinforced polymers and the energy savings they can yield. As demonstrated by the ACC Roadmap efforts and the new AMO Request for Information, certainly the “fibers” of a strong initiative are aligning.