John Davidson of Cygnet Texkimp discusses R&D challenges, carbon fiber developments and more

Smithers Rapra caught up with John Davidson, Product Director – Oxidation & Carbonisation of Cygnet Texkimp ahead of GOCarbonFiber North America 2015. Find out what he had to say below:

Q. Please briefly describe your background in composites and your new role at Cygnet Texkimp

I have been involved in the Carbon Fibre industry since 1982 working for RK Carbon Fibres, where I was involved in early precursor trials with Courtaulds. I went on from there to build and run carbon fibre lines in Scotland for RK and SGL, and throughout the world.

Over the years I have been involved in designing, building and commissioning many carbon fibre lines, with tow counts from 3k to 320k.

I have known Matthew Kimpton-Smith of Texkimp for many years and we have often discussed how we could offer a better service to the industry. The idea of offering Turnkey solutions has always been at the top of our thoughts and late last year we were able to join forces to offer a Turnkey solution that takes away the risk to new clients and incumbents alike.

Q. For you, what is the single biggest R&D challenge you are aiming to address in the short to medium term?

Precursor; the chemistry of precursor has remained very similar for many years. Oxidation time has come down but it needs to come down further to begin to make the process more energy efficient. It can take 60 – 120 minutes to oxidise precursor, but just 3 minutes to carbonise it.

Q. Are there any prominent industry sectors that you think will become less important over time?

I wouldn’t say less important but certainly such as the sporting goods industry, which in the early days was the major commercial user of carbon fibre, will maintain the low but steady growth it has shown over the years but is unlikely to increase in the same manner when civilian aircraft dragged the industry forward in 2001.

Commercial airplanes will continue to use Carbon Fibre but will still use metals where they are needed. The same could be said of the automotive industry when finally we see growth in use similar to that which BMW have bravely advanced. Wind turbines will continue steady growth even though their effect on the landscape is still seen as being at odds with their overall benefit.

Q. What are the main threats from other materials to sustained future use of carbon fiber and how can the carbon fiber industry ensure this is still the stiff, lightweight material of choice?

The aircraft and automotive industry still considers lightweight metals to be a major contender for use in their structures, not necessarily one over the other, more a mixture which could go either way depending on the end use and required properties.

Q. Can the carbon fiber industry learn from other sectors that have successfully transitioned from specialist supplier to commodity?

Slowly but surely carbon fibre will become a commodity, when we speak about carbon fibre we usually use the Toray nomenclature, T300, T700 etc. but in essence every other manufacturers carbon fibre has similar properties so it could be said that we a have a standard, just not an official one. Before carbon fibre becomes a commodity we have to have industry standards as far as physical properties are concerned, we are not far away from that now. What really needs to be standardised is the equipment used and the production methods. One of my main reasons for working for Texkimp on providing Turnkey solutions has been the disparity in equipment and methodologies which have seen several new lines lying idle because of lack of knowledge.

Q. Outside of your own work, what is the most exciting new program you have seen recently regarding the use or development of carbon fiber?

I have to say the BMW i series cars. At the time I think most people thought it a very brave move to invest in such a carbon intensive motorcar, but BMW have certainly stolen a march on the rest of the automotive industry, whom we still await with baited breath.

Q. Finally, we are very pleased to have you on board for the conference this year, what are you hoping to gain most from this event?

I always come away invigorated from the Go Carbon conferences, I like to hear new ideas, new ways of doing things and of course I look for signs that the industry is still growing and still re-inventing itself. As a networking opportunity Go Carbon is second to none, it is a good venue to catch up with old friends and meet new ones.