Skip to content

UTSI Lab Spins Its First Carbon Fibers; Challenging Steps Ahead, Vakili Says

The University of Tennessee Space Institute’s carbon fiber research team has successfully spun carbon fibers in the Institute’s new “spin lab” earlier than previously planned.

“We were able to spin carbon fiber continuously for more than two hours on Feb. 2, a couple of months ahead of our originally planned schedule,” said Ahmad Vakili, who is leading the research. “This is the first of many steps in the path to make low cost carbon fibers at UTSI. We will be systematically moving ahead throughout the next steps as soon as we practically can.”

Several of these “challenging steps” are necessary to complete and perfect the process for mass production and commercial applications,” the professor said.

The spin lab, donated to UTSI along with other major equipment, supplies, and know-how by ConocoPhillips (COP), has been put together in the past six months.

“This was a major first step for us at UTSI to both demonstrate our ability to produce fibers from the large amount of pitch (precursor material) that we received with the COP equipment,” Vakili said, “and also to show to our funding agencies that we are going to deliver what we have promised, hopefully on time.”

In December 2004, the Houston firm donated six truckloads of equipment and commodities to UTSI after the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the Institute $950,000 to initiate the research program. Congress has since approved $1 million to continue the research. Congressman Lincoln Davis and Senators Bill Frist, Zach Wamp, and Lamar Alexander have been supportive of this research.

The Institute’s plans include collaboration with UT Knoxville and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and cultivation of commercial partners as they work to establish Middle Tennessee as a center for pitched-based carbon fiber application technologies. Vakili hopes to reach these goals within three to five years.

Vakili said Joel Davenport and Mr. Peter Sherrouse, research engineers, were “instrumental in reassembling the system, checking all the components, including the controls, and making sure all the settings are at operating conditions. This incremental success was accomplished through dedication, hard work, and in consultation with Dan Rossillon, a retired ConnocoPhillips employee who along with Vakili helped design the various components and was responsible for the spin lab at COP.”

Other UTSI faculty and staff helping with the low-cost fiber technology production program are Atul Sheth, UTSI Chemical Engineering professor, Abraham Meganathan, post-doctoral research associate, Mr. James R. Goodman, director of research labs, Mr. Wes McMinn, physical plant director, and Ms. Charlotte Henley, administrative support assistant.

Rossillon, who was on hand for the first spinning of fibers, said, “We’ve duplicated the world class facility – the latest one we (ConnocoPhillips) had” when the firm abandoned the project.

“The United States needs this material,” Rossillon said. “It will give us an advantage in the aerospace field plus its applications for automobiles and other purposes. As far as applications, we truly are limited only by our imagination.”

Vakili plans to demonstrate that pitch-based carbon fiber can be produced for about $5 a pound; Rossillon says the “actual manufacturing cost will be less than $5 a pound.”

A graduate of UTSI and professor of Aerospace Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, Vakili has a long history of helping the U.S. fiber industry solve various problems, including how to mass produce fibers rather than producing a limited amounts at a time — a major factor in reducing the cost.