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Since their invention in the 1960's, Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastics (CRFP's) have become the material of choice for major manufacturing applications and their role is increasing steadily in everyday life. Whether it is in Boeing or Airbus aircrafts or laptops, CRFP's have higher strength-to weight ratios and impact resistance, and offer greater design flexibility and better resistance to chemicals and corrosion than conventional materials. However, to date the high development and manufacturing costs have restricted the use of high performance fibres to only the toughest of military and aerospace applications. In fact, it has been these applications that have been the major drivers for growth in the last five years, during which suppliers have often struggled to cope with the immense demand from these segments alone. Although this demand has stimulated innovation and growth in high performance fibres, over reliance on these segments exposes companies to high geopolitical risks in the long term. Realising this, international companies are rapidly expanding into emerging applications with significant forecasted growth in the next 10-20 years. As a result, there are now huge opportunities for Victoria to play a role with focussed research and development (R&&D) activity in the field of Carbon Fibre manufacture which will hopefully lead to securing a role for Victorian manufacturers in the composite manufacturing future.
To date significant international research activity has focussed on advanced manufacturing techniques for composites. A number of automotive partners are also developing advanced processes for manufacturing automotive structures with fast cycle time, low cost, and high consistency. Sandia National Laboratory (SNL) and its industrial partners have ongoing work in wind turbine blade manufacture whilst manufacturing process development for other energy-related applications is also under way at various laboratories, universities, and companies. Process development includes automated manufacturing of chopped fibre preforms, or robotic preforming, with carbon fibres or hybrids of carbon and glass fibres. However there is currently little or no commercial activity in the downstream processing of carbon fibre production, fibre sizing and fibre coating.
Meaningful research on these processes can only be conducted on large pilot scales, since labs are unable to produce the volumes required by industry for relevant commercial trials. Further, the maintenance of fibre tension during manufacture is pivotal to the production of high performance fibres and this can be only achieved in an industrial scale plant. An additional area demanding investigation is the expansion of precursor stock to produce CF; present stocks are limited and relatively expensive. Importantly, no focussed research activity in these areas is currently undertaken in Australia, despite the existence of carbon fibre based industries and the large quantities of carbon fibre material imported.
Lee Astheimer, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at Deakin University, says while a material such as carbon fibre has great potential, it does not come cheaply. "It's a wonder material, but I think it can become more wonderful with more research", she says. "The problem with carbon fibre now is it's very costly to produce, so one of the areas of research will be examining lower-cost manufacturing, lower-cost production and even lower-cost precursors to carbon-fibre development."
As a significant part of the project, Carbon Nexus will deliver the world's first, dedicated, pilot scale research plant capable of producing industrially relevant quantities of aerospace quality Carbon Fibre as well as enabling research into the chemical, mechanical and nanoscale characteristics of the Carbon Fibre product. By leveraging the combined capabilities and resources of Deakin, CSIRO and VCAMM in particular, the facility will offer a globally significant, University based, industrial-scale Carbon Fibre research capability unique in the world.