Furnace Engineering discuss precursor materials, carbonisation furnaces and more

Smithers Rapra spoke to Brian Gooden, Director of Furnace Engineering ahead of his presentation "Carbon Fibre Carbonisation Simulation Facility" at GOCarbonFibre Europe. View the full interview below: 

New precursor materials are being proposed, what are some of the challenges in evaluating them?

One of the challenges is how to process short lengths of precursor materials that can subsequently be scaled up for production.  Unusual materials may be limited to very small research quantities.  In addition, production facilities are probably not suited to do test work. In order to pioneer a new process, or improve the performance of an existing product, it is helpful to have test facilities that can quickly take a small quantity of a wide range of precursor materials through the various process extremes in order to evaluate the effect of each on the carbon fibre that can be made. More than that, one needs to determine what has to be done to optimise the characteristics of the final product. This may become an iterative process. Because of the interrelationship between process variables such as heating time temperature profile, tension and atmosphere, the test equipment needs to be able to quickly change each of those variables so as to produce good statistical data.  Ideally the process must be reproducible  on scale up to a research single tow line, and  then on to a pilot scale multiple tow facility so that consistent performance will be achieved in production.

What unique advantages does Furnace Engineering’s carbonisation simulation facility offer to users?

The unique advantage of the new small scale furnace simulation facility is to provide a low cost means of laboratory testing of short lengths and small quantities of material and to be able to generate a large amount of test data in a short space of time. When Furnace Engineering designed the research and pilot scale carbonisation furnaces, the focus was on reducing energy consumption, inert gas consumption and having very good control over the atmosphere in the furnaces. It proved a great benefit of having good correlation in scaling up from the small single tow to the pilot scale furnaces. The possibility became apparent that we could go the other way and scale down further while still replicating the production process.

What is the main driver for the long term future growth for carbon fibre?

There is no motivator quite like having industry demanding lower costs with better performance combined with the desire to produce something better than your competitor.  Like it or not, this drives innovation. Our part is to design and provide new and better equipment that will enable those better materials to be found and manufactured.   

Where do you think the innovation will come from?

There is so much potential there is for improvement. I think the breakthroughs are likely to come at the microscopic scale. Perhaps future carbon fibres will consist of filaments that are themselves made of multiple layers of new smart materials.  As equipment designers we will then have to step up to the plate and design the equipment with the necessary atmospheres and temperature controls that will be able to process them.