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Congressman Lincoln Davis Visits Carbon Fiber Lab at Space Institute

The University of Tennessee Space Institute’s concentration on light-weight, low-cost pitch-based carbon fiber materials ties right in with the Tennessee Technology Corridor concept, Congressman Lincoln Davis said while visiting the new lab on Aug. 25.

“We’re open to collaboration,” Ahmad Vakili assured Davis during a presentation about the product’s many potential applications, its ability to save energy by reducing weight, and its low cost.

It was Vakili’s collaboration with ConocoPhillips that led that firm to donate expensive equipment, material and years of know-how to UTSI. The U.S. Department of Transportation has provided $950,000 to launch the project.

Davis thanked the Institute for “keeping us posted regarding new technology,” saying he is proud of “the research you do for UT…and I want this to continue in the future.” After commenting that Alabama Congressman Bud Cramer has Marshall Space Flight Center and Tennessee Congressman Zach Wamp has Oak Ridge, Davis joked, “I’ve adopted the Space Institute.”

Vakili emphasized that a “commercial partner” is needed to help UTSI transfer its findings to “various industries and perhaps to make Middle Tennessee a center for carbon fiber technology.” Pitch-based carbon fiber’s potential has already been developed and demonstrated in a research spin lab, developed in part with Vakili’s help. He is now focusing on demonstrating its applications.

A major attraction of the pitch-based carbon materials is its low cost, Vakili said, adding, “We’re talking about making it available at $5 a pound.”

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 and development at UTSI, both envision this work potentially having a “major impact” on the manufacturing economy.

Navy Captain Chris Flood, the new vice commander at Arnold Engineering Development Center, and Edward Kraft, a UTSI graduate and top technical advisor to the AEDC commander, also were present.

Responding to questions from the congressman, Vakili said storage tanks for natural gas made from the pitch-based carbon fiber would be more durable than steel tanks and also “significantly more resistant to environmental considerations.”

Citing reported plans for a much lighter airplane as well as talk of using hydrogen to save fuel for automobiles, Vakili said pitch-based carbon fiber would be a much cheaper and simpler way to conserve fuel for aircraft or automobiles.

“When you save weight, you save energy,” the professor of aeronautical engineering said. He noted that Atul Sheth, UTSI professor of chemical engineering, “is working closely with us on this project as will other of our professors. This is not just a one-year project. What we must do is to stay the course.”

Vakili cited a wide variety of potential military and civilian applications for the product, ranging from tougher turbine blades and better protection for military vehicles to a longer lasting mixture of concrete and asphalt. Highway officials are especially interested in extending the life of bridges, other concrete structures, and highways, he said.