Toho Tenax America spoke exclusively to Smithers Rapra ahead of GOCarbonFiber 2015

Jason Carling, Global Director of Product Development at Toho Tenax Americas shared his thoughts on the potential found in thermoplastics, changes to the global marketplace and more.

Q. Please briefly describe your background in composites

I have been involved in product development, design, development, research, engineering, and material science for 20+ years. I have spent the majority of that time working with thermoplastics and all of the associated manufacturing and processing techniques.  This has been a great advantage during the past decade as we have seen more and more thermoplastic applications and developments occur in the composites industry.  My involvement in the industry includes 5 patents where I am the primary inventor and several more where I am a contributor or un-named co-inventor.  I am a voting member of 5 ASTM committees and a member of many other industry societies and groups including: SAMPE, SPE, SME, and other. 

Q. Your presentation will focus on the potential to be found in the use of Thermoplastics for Carbon Composites. Why is this an important issue?

Simply put, thermosets are excellent polymers for composite structures.  They do have some significant limitations however. A major issue is the process of curing and completing the chemical reaction phase. The time to complete this may be quite long.  Depending on the chemistry this process can take hours.  Thermoplastics, in contrast, do not have a curing process. They need only be melted and then re-solidified.  As we have created more and more different thermoplastic polymer chemistries over the past 65 years we have created some amazing materials. There are polymers that are either highly crystalline or completely amorphous.  Some polymers will melt at room temperature while others are melt processed at temperatures approaching 400C.  The chemistries of the solid forms of these polymers vary from highly chemically resistant to significantly reactive.  These characteristics and many other physical and mechanical properties are making thermoplastics very interesting as we look into the future of design, development, and engineering. The single factor of reducing part cycle time from hours to minutes makes thermoplastics extremely important.

Q. Outside of your own area of expertise, what sector of the carbon fiber industry currently excites you the most and why? 

This is difficult for me to say. One area that I am interested in is the future of new raw materials and processes to create carbon fiber.  The Bessemer steel process was patented 160 years ago and within a decade had literally changed the world.  A similar event happened in the production of Aluminium where it had been very expensive initially to produce and then with the change in process, invented by Charles Hall in the US, suddenly aluminium became extremely affordable.  There was a time when aluminium was more expensive than gold because it was so difficult to make.  Steel and aluminium today form the backbone of our industrial society.  That only happened to through unique innovations that completely converted the process.  It wasn’t that steel and aluminium were unknown before; it was only that significant improvements were made to the materials and production processes.  I hope that carbon fiber is poised to have a similar Bessemer or Hall awakening.

Q. How do you think new producers will change the global marketplace, as new production lines are built in China and the Middle East, and the industry develops in South and Latin America?  

There will always be more room to expand carbon fiber production. The demand is constantly growing as developers and engineers create new applications that can take advantage of the physical, mechanical, and electrical benefits of carbon fiber composites.  I suspect that the addition of new carbon fiber producers will spread out the range of properties (strength and modulus primarily) that are available in the market.  I think it may also occur that standards will be developed for specific types or grades of carbon fiber. For example, the addition of these new producers may force the industry to create an equivalent to what it means to be 320 stainless steel, or 6061 aluminium.  This would be a welcome addition to the global industry.  A rising tide lifts all ships. 

Q. Do you think CF producers could benefit from more cross-industry collaboration, and if so what kind of initiatives would you see gaining strong traction?

Due to the history of carbon fiber it will not be easy to separate the export controlled aspects from the general material characteristics.  In the years around world war 2 there were strong restrictions on some of the metallurgy information that was being developed in connection with uranium enrichment.  To a different degree the carbon fiber industry has similar restrictions.  The appearance or thought of these restriction limits any cross industry collaboration.  Aside from the extreme cases where these restrictions actually have merit, I think the industry would benefit from having some unified grading scales to help the world produce better carbon fiber and to aid customers / consumers in finding more specifically what they need.  For example a grade may be S4500 or M250 which could indicate, when tested with a specific resin system, in a specific dimension, prepared by a unified test method, that the Tensile Strength may be ~ 4500 Mpa - S4500, or Tensile Modulus of 250 Gpa (M250).  Perhaps the industry will grow to accept an ASTM test method and resin system and grading nomenclature.  Without these understandings carbon fiber composites will continue to be a bit of black magic.  Additionally, it is not well known or understood by engineers, designers, or purchasing agents, that all carbon fibers are NOT created equal. The fiber mechanical properties may be similar in raw performance but when they are surface treated and chemical sizing agents are applied to the outside, they will react differently to every different resin system, thermoset and thermoplastic. This kind of awareness in the industry, among consumers, will help to improve utilization and performance.

Q. If you had a magic wand and you could solve one problem/challenge currently facing you in an instant, what would it be and why?

Carbon fiber today is very similar to what was being done 50 years ago in 1965. The majority of the industry, 95%, use PAN as the raw material or precursor to making carbon fiber.  The process is energy intensive, long, and wasteful of the raw material.  It takes 2 kilograms of PAN to yield 1 kilogram of carbon fiber.  If we could create that Bessemer / Hall process for carbon fiber, perhaps using a different raw material than PAN, it would go a long ways toward allowing or promoting carbon fiber utilization.  Carbon fiber is an excellent, high performance, raw material. Because it is a costly raw material it is not used in all of the applications that it could be.  200 years ago in England, steel was used sparingly. One of the main uses at that time was for cutlery because it would hold a sharp edge and could be re-sharpened.  It was expensive though and people only used it where nothing else worked.  With carbon fiber composites we have a similar situation today.  It could entirely revolutionize our world if the cost was different and perhaps if the performance was extended.  We will see. 

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?

It is always beneficial for me to be in the presence of people from my industry, both customers and consumers, and competitors.  It helps us all to see the big picture and focus more on the most important challenges today.  It is also exciting to work in a business and industry where you can see that the work you are doing may literally change the world.

Jason Carling will be presenting "The Future of Carbon Composite is in Thermoplastics" at GOCarbonFiber 2015 find out more now >>