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Congress Appropriates $1 Million for UTSI’s Carbon Fiber Research

In action awaiting the President’s signature, Congress has approved $1 million to support continued low cost carbon fiber research at The University of Tennessee Space Institute.

U.S. Senators Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander announced that this appropriation is included in a conference report containing newly approved money for transportation and economic development initiatives across Tennessee.

The funding for 2006 “means that we can buy highly specialized and needed additional equipment for our UTSI carbon fiber laboratory and also move ahead with our research efforts towards developing these technologies for commercial applications,” said Ahmad D. Vakili, professor of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, who is heading the project at UTSI.

Vakili and his team of colleagues have been gradually and deliberately running “shakedown” tests of the spin lab equipment that was donated to UTSI by ConocoPhillips last December and installed in a laboratory called the “UTSI carbon fiber spin lab” on the Institute’s campus. “The equipment has performed very well, as expected,” Vakili said.

John E. Caruthers, UT associate vice president and UTSI’s chief operating officer, and Joel W. Muehlhauser, UT assistant vice president and dean of research at the Institute, joined Vakili in expressing appreciation to Senators Frist and Alexander for their strong support of the carbon fiber project.

“Congressman Lincoln Davis also has been an enthusiastic supporter of this research and development project,” added Caruthers, noting that the Congressman recently visited the lab where the research is under way and commented on the potentials for the carbon fiber technology.

Muehlhauser says UTSI’s research work will have a “major impact on the manufacturing economy.”

Vakili plans to demonstrate that the pitch-based carbon fiber (a by-product of the petroleum distillation processes) can be produced at a much lower cost than other competing technologies and therefore can be used for many technologies that are not economically viable now.

Its many varied potential uses include the manufacture of light-weight but strong and tough components for aircraft and automobiles. “Our fibers are basic materials made cheaper and simpler to be used extensively to conserve fuel,” Vakili stresses. “When you save weight, you save energy.”

Multi applications of the technology are a major focus in the Institute’s lab efforts, and Vakili has been impressed by the variety of firms expressing interest in the work. He also emphasizes the positive environmental impact of taking the leftovers from asphalt materials and spinning strands of carbon fiber for conversion into useful materials.

UTSI is also making specific efforts to collaborate with UT Knoxville and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the venture. Potential of the pitch-based carbon fiber has “already been developed and demonstrated in a research spin lab,” Vakili said. While focusing on its numerous applications, Vakili says, “We also want to cultivate commercial partners who might help the potential for other multi-faceted industrial use. We are anxious to begin establishing Middle Tennessee as a center for pitch-based carbon fiber application technologies.”

The funding for the second year “will keep us on track in our desire to reach these goals within about three to five years,” Vakili said.

The U.S. Department of Transportation provided $950,000 to get the lab established, equipment installed, and staff assembled. Just before Christmas last year, ConocoPhillips delivered several truck loads of equipment to UTSI and has since donated intellectual properties (patents) and information gleaned from early research efforts to the Institute.

Vakili’s past involvement with the ConocoPhillips carbon fiber program and in helping the U.S. fiber industry solve problems – including how to mass produce fibers efficiently – led to ConocoPhillips’ helping UTSI to continue the research.