UK CAER Researchers Spinning a Path Forward for Kentucky Manufacturers

 In Materials Technologies, Success Stories

For years, Kentucky has been known as a national manufacturing hotbed for a variety of reasons. Home to inexpensive, reliable energy and a global leader in aluminum production has kept Kentucky communities churning out products — and keeping Kentuckians gainfully employed — for generations.

But it is a different material that shows great promise in the Commonwealth.

Carbon fiber is the material of the future — a next-generation version of aluminum. Its properties are often considered the holy grail in manufacturing. Carbon fiber is a low-weight, high-strength, corrosion resistant material that can conduct electricity.

Industry leaders agree that if you intend to be at the leading edge of advanced manufacturing, you better understand carbon fiber’s importance, and you better be actively adapting to a rapidly changing marketplace.

The good news for Kentucky manufacturers is that one of the leading carbon fiber research and development facilities in the world is located in their backyard.

The University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research (CAER) is home to the largest carbon fiber spin line at any institution in North America. Over the past decade, CAER researchers have built a solution spinning line that draws visitors, collaborators, and research partners from across the Commonwealth, the nation and the world. And they are here for one thing: to lean on CAER’s carbon fiber research team as they seek answers to some of the toughest questions facing the industry.

There are already numerous products in the retail and commercial marketplace that are made from carbon fiber composites. Sports equipment, aircraft and aerospace applications, satellites, automobiles, pressure vessels, specialized tools and wind turbine components, just to name a few.

According to Matt Weisenberger, associate director for CAER’s Materials Technologies Research Group, there is one thing keeping carbon fiber from truly taking off in the materials marketplace: cost. It is extremely expensive to produce carbon fiber. Much of that cost is tied to the production of precursor fiber — the first material created as part of the spinning process.

That’s what makes CAER’s expertise in this field so vital. CAER has spent a decade specifically developing technology related to the production of precursor fiber.

“Our team has developed the unique know-how to manufacture at a small scale — but a meaningful scale — experimental polymers and precursor carbon fibers,” Weisenberger said.

With Kentucky’s focus on becoming a national leader in advanced manufacturing, Weisenberger notes that UK CAER is primed to help partner with Kentucky companies to ensure the Commonwealth remains at the leading technological edge.

“As Kentucky’s land-grant university, we understand the important role we play in collaborating with Kentucky companies,” Weisenberger said. “We take great pride in working with industry and we look forward to more opportunities to do that with manufacturers in the Commonwealth, across the nation and throughout the world.”

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