Jared Kosters

Last week, President Obama announced the launch of a new regional manufacturing institute as part of the growing National Network for Manufacturing (NNMI). Like the other Institutes for Manufacturing Innovation (IMI) that aim to accelerate the development and adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies, the new Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) will focus on developing advanced polymer composites for wind, transportation, and gas storage technologies in an effort to revitalize the manufacturing sector while achieving a clean energy future.

Composite materials are important because they combine two or more constituent materials to achieve highly favorable characteristics that in many cases exceed those of common metals such as steel or aluminum. For example, fiber-reinforced polymer composites offer many advantageous properties, including stiffness, fatigue, corrosion, thermal expansion, and durability, while also offering a lighter weight than most metals, which makes them extremely desirable for applications like automotive and aerospace. In fact, Nexight recently supported the development of a technology roadmap for the plastics and polymer composites industry led by the American Chemistry Council that aims to increase the use of these materials in vehicles to help the automotive sector meet the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) fuel economy standard of 50 miles per gallon in vehicles by model year 2025.

While the advantages of composite materials make adopting them in a wide range of applications seem like a no-brainer, there are still barriers in major areas that must be addressed in order to promote their widespread use. To make this level of adoption a reality, IACMI has set three ambitious goals for the next 10 years:

  1. Cost: Lower the overall manufacturing costs of advanced composites by 50 percent
  2. Energy: Reduce the energy used to make composites by 75 percent
  3. Environmental: Increase recyclability of composites by more than 95 percent
Carbon Fiber Laminated Sheet

GifTagger, Wikimedia: Carbon Fiber Laminated Sheet

More than 100 IACMI members of the $250 million public-private partnership will work to achieve these goals by developing and applying advanced composites to clean energy technologies, including lightweight vehicles with high fuel economies, low-cost and energy-efficient wind turbines, and compressed hydrogen gas storage tanks for fuel cells. By facilitating these advances, IACMI will play a major role in transitioning the Unites States into a clean energy future, but it will also have tremendous implications for the advancement of other novel technologies. Below are a few examples:

  • Biomimetic designs. In previous posts, I have discussed the benefits of leveraging nature to optimize product design, and have provided examples of how bio-inspired designs can enable a more sustainable energy future. From tree branches to human femurs, naturally occurring composite structures contain a continuous arrangement of fibers from end-to-end in high strength-to-weight ratio designs. The design, modeling, and simulation component of IACMI could yield a set of fundamental tools that would help product designers create optimal composite fiber loading paths that accurately mimic the highly efficient structures found in nature.
  • Flexible, energy-efficient electronics. Long, continuous carbon nanotubes (CNT) are desired for more than their exceptionally high theoretical strengths. CNTs also function as semiconductor materials and have been considered a potential successor to silicon transistors in electronics applications due to their ability to effectively dissipate heat. The composite materials and processing technology component of IACMI could deliver novel CNT processing techniques and usher in a new generation of flexible, energy-efficient electronic devices.
  • Water desalination membranes. According to the World Health Organization, almost 750 million people do not have access to clean water. Researchers are eager to develop multi-walled carbon nanotube (MWNT) membranes to filter salt and pathogens as an effective, energy-efficient alternative to today’s reverse-osmosis desalination processes. Innovative carbon fiber processing techniques developed under IACMI could provide fundamental insights into new carbon-based desalination materials that are affordable and widely accessible.

Much like the Fibers and Textiles Manufacturing Institute, it is clear that the research and development efforts involved in IACMI could have a significant downstream impact on other industries and technologies. As a result of these efforts, lower manufacturing costs, reduced energy consumption, and extended lifecycles of next-generation advanced composite materials will not only come to define the energy sector of the future, but the many other sectors that stand to benefit from the integration of the composite materials of tomorrow.

To learn more about national efforts to accelerate materials and manufacturing innovation, read our additional posts: