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Maybe it’s fitting that the first rider to win the Tour de France on a carbon bike also has his hand in what’s being called the future of carbon fiber. On the surface, it might be difficult to grasp just what is going on in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, but it’s bigger than just bikes. What initially started with Greg LeMond’s search for a better way to produce carbon fiber bike frames domestically has turned into a potential game changer for the construction of anything that moves.

While LeMond’s name is on the building, Greg is just one part of a world class team with some of the best and brightest minds in the world of composites. The story may continue with LeMond Composites, but it started with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and their Carbon Fiber Technology Facility which was started by Connie Jackon, now President of LeMond Composites. After pioneering a new carbon fiber production technique with drastically reduced costs, the technology was licensed to LeMond Composites for commercial development.

What does that mean for the future? During the presentation at the opening celebration, Greg said that this won’t just usher in a new line of LeMond bikes, but this technology “will change the world…”

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How will a new process to create carbon fiber change the world? According to LeMond and the staff at the ORNL it all starts with the “Holy Grail of carbon fiber.” Apparently, that was the term given to the theoretical carbon that could be produced at $5 per pound in 1989. If someone was able to produce a carbon fiber this affordable, it would have drastic implications on many manufacturing and transportation sectors as it would allow anything that moves to be made lighter, more efficient, and more affordably. At least once over the course of the night it was mentioned that at that price, carbon fiber would be cheaper than aluminum.

When LeMond Composites talks about creating a new low cost carbon, they aren’t talking about assembling bikes from carbon sheets – they’re talking about actually making the individual carbon strands that go into that carbon fiber. According to Edward Western, a carbon fiber consultant who has been engineering carbon for as long as it’s been used in bikes, at least half the cost of carbon fiber comes from the raw material itself. In order to reach the Holy Grail, they would have to find a way to start with a cheaper raw material.

That’s exactly what the ORNL team, led by Connie Jackson, did. Using the pilot line shown above, the team was able to demonstrate commercial viability of the new technique that turns raw fibers into strands of lower cost carbon fiber. The fibers are stretched and pulled through ovens that oxidize the acrylic fibers turning the martial into carbon – the higher the heat, the stiffer the carbon (higher modulus). Of course, describing it that simply doesn’t do the process justice, but ORNL and LeMond were keeping the actual details of the process close to their chest which is why we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the actual machinery. As you can imagine if the Grail carbon fiber, as it’s being called, turns out to be as big of a revolution as they expect, you don’t want to be giving away your secrets.

Once that fiber is created, it can then be used in any of the ways carbon fiber is currently used. That includes carbon filament, woven fabrics, chopped and injection molded, and more. Not only does cheaper carbon fiber stand to revolutionize the transportation industry with lighter vehicles, the process of making Grail fiber also uses less energy compared to conventional carbon production improving the “green” potential even more – the future might even hold a way to make carbon fiber strands out of recycled material. The Grail fiber also provides improved bonding between the fiber and resins which causes it to perform better than it theoretically should. Really, the only draw back of the Grail carbon is that it probably won’t qualify as aerospace grade. That will mean it won’t be used to build planes or rockets, but it could finally make things like carbon fiber shipping containers a reality.

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From L to R: Mayor of Oak Ridge Warren Gooch, Roane County Commissioner Ron Woody, President Connie Jackson, Greg LeMond, Commissioner of TN. Dept. of Economic and Community development Randy Boyd, and ORNL’s Dr. Mark Johnson and Dr. Thomas Zacharia

Located right next to the ORNL Carbon Fiber Technology Facility is the new LeMond Composites headquarters. This building will serve as LeMond’s head offices but the actual carbon fiber production facility is yet to be built. LeMond plans to construct the factory in close proximity to their headquarters and will keep all of the production in Oak Ridge, TN which will bring 242 new high paying jobs and a massive amount of business to the area. LeMond Composites is still securing funding but with interest from major automotive manufacturers, not to mention other bike companies, it seems like it’s all but a sure thing that this will indeed be the future of carbon fiber.

No timeline was given as to the arrival of new bikes, but we were told that prototypes are in the works and that LeMond Composites will be holding a job fair in 2017 to staff the facility.

lemond.cc

73 COMMENTS

  1. If they can keep the cost that low while scaling up operations, I could really see this having an enormous effect on the way we design things.

    • It figures that someone would trot out that tired, pathetic saying…

      As for the article, you can find it in the dictionary under both “melodramatic” and “hyperbole”. It’s a typical NYT piece written by someone who isn’t familiar with the subject, who starts with a premise, then twists the evidence to support it.

      It’s not exactly news that cyclists crash. When that happens, metal parts bend and sometimes break, and carbon parts sometimes break. Again, that’s not news. In most cases it means that the parts have to be replaced regardless of their material. So what?

  2. Wow, that sounds like a super serious business beyond just bikes. If this succeeds, the value to society could be big. Side note: I wish Greg success just so he can poke Lance in the eye.

  3. > it seems like it’s all but a sure thing
    > that this will indeed be the future of
    > carbon fiber.

    lol

    I do hope it is an improvement, but let’s wait and see.

  4. They need to call one of their bikes, dogs, or children “8 Seconds”. Hard hitting phrase for one of the most inspiring comebacks of all time.

  5. A shop I worked at sold LeMonds and I got to go drinking with Greg before a ride the next day. They say you should never meet your heels but man, those were 2 days I will never forget. I have wanted Greg and his bike company to succeed for so long and I’m glad he is out from under Trek.

    Cheers

  6. Greg deserves all the success after that w****r Armstrong attacked him for simply telling the truth, which is so obvious all these years later. i am embarrassed I fell for the charade and even bought the yellow bracelet. Hindsight is wonderful. Sorry Greg.

  7. Wow….this sounds awesome!….. Greg, if you’re listening – if you have a job for a Mechanical Engineer with a buisness background and a LOVE for bicycles then please give me a shout! 😉

    • The MARKUP on a finished product has nothing to do with the cost of the raw materials. The PRICE to consumers is a function the total price to produce the product (materials, labor, marketing, transportation, etc.) times whatever markup the seller chooses.

  8. lemond took time to take pics and chat with us in the middle of large crowd during dh finals at world’s back in the day. nice guy. wish him all the best.

  9. This will be interesting to watch. At $5 a pound carbon fiber is still more expensive than aluminum and much more expensive than steel, but the weight difference starts making it an attractive material for automotive use. Especially in electric vehicles where so much weight is tied up in batteries, pounds have to be shed elsewhere.

    So much like the early part of the last century, technology developed for bicycles will be adopted for cars.

      • It’s far closer to being the same specific strength, especially in lower grades or with high resin fractions. Which is not the same thing, almost the opposite. In fact carbon fibers on their own are more dense than aluminium. You can build many structures lighter for the same strength, but less so when it comes to point loads.

  10. There’s a major factual error in this story. The sixth paragraph includes this sentence:

    “The fibers are stretched and pulled through ovens that oxidize the acrylic fibers turning the martial into carbon[…]”

    The acrylic (or, often, rayon) fibers are certainly *not* oxidized. They’re carbonized, which means they’re heated in the absence of oxygen. This drives off nearly everything but the carbon. It’s really not very different from how charcoal is made.

    If the manufacturer applied heat in the presence of oxygen, the fibers would certainly oxidize. That is, they’d catch fire and burn.

    It may seem like a small difference, but so does baking a cake with a cup of salt instead of a cup of sugar. Salt and sugar look alike, but when you take a bite…

    • The acrylic fiber is put through the oxidation line first, once it has been oxidized, then it is run through the carbonization line where it becomes carbon fiber.

    • Also, making the carbon fiber stiffer does not mean that it has higher modulus. Modulus is the ability of a material to deform and return to its original shape. The production of strands into sheets (or whatever) has a large impact on the modulus of the part.

      • Well, modulus pretty much *does* mean stiffness. The property of deforming and returning to the original shape is elastic deformation. The degree of elastic deformation prior to the deformation becoming permanent (plastic deformation) is essentially the material’s yield strength.

        I suspect you’re thinking of this little tidbit: the stiffest (highest Young’s modulus) fibers are not often the strongest ones, and the strongest fibers are usually not the stiffest ones. That’s something a lot of people miss…they assume (reasonably) that the stiffest fibers are also the strongest ones.

        N.B.: For what it’s worth, mechanical engineers use the terms “modulus,” “elastic modulus” and “Young’s modulus” pretty much interchangeably. It’s easy for non-engineers to get turned around when we use so many synonyms for the same thing.

          • If indeed the precursor is acrylic, they are refering to Polyacrylonitrile (PAN) rather than acrylics (acrylic was an early textile industry name applied to PAN). I suspect they also refer to a 50% reduction in energy costs associated with the conversion process rather than a 50% reduction in overall manufacturing cost (this is a substantial difference). However, if they use textile grade PAN, which is actually what early commercial CFs were made from (Courtaulds), the precursor cost will be reduced also. If we assume that $25/kg is the base cost for a carbon fiber, then $12/kg is almost sufficiently low to enter the automotive market, but actually is not that low compared to many other competitive materials.

            Also, yes, the PAN fibres need to be oxidatively thermostabilized prior to carbonization. This is also true of other precursor fibres (cellulosic or pitches), with some exceptions if the precursor can be solution spun but does not melt upon thermal treatment to carbonization (rare, but potentially fun! Possible! I produce those suckers!).

            Anyways, the stress-strain curves of carbon fibres are linear, the modulus is the slope of the stress-strain curve. Linearity is not a normal feature of stress-strain curves of polymers, but it is for CF and several materials. Youngs modulus, elastic modulus and modulus are different things in the sense they are applied to differing materials – semantics really – youngs and elastic are almost always used for materials with a non-linear stress strain curve. However, there is a time dependence for stress-strain, called creep and therefore it is always important to consider the various aspects of the testing method applied.

            Consider this too … a CF with a tensile strength of 10 GPa can have the same modulus as a CF with a tensile strength of 0.1 GPa. The difference is that the latter one will break at 1/100 the extension of the other! They have the same modulus but the work required to break one is much lower.

            Meh!

    • I should clarify that the polymer precursors to carbon fiber *do* undergo a stabilization step at roughly 300 degrees C. After that comes the carbonization step at temperatures up to 2500 degrees C.

      I imagine that Zach Overholt, the author, just conflated these two steps. That’s fine; he’s not a materials scientist. But the fiber isn’t carbon until after it’s been carbonized.

  11. If your average frame weighs about 1kg, there’s about 500-700gr of carbon fiber in it.

    Right now price of CF is 20-40$ per kilogram, so that few thousand dollar frame you’re buyimg only contains about 20-30$ of carbon fiber worth!

    Making it cheaper by 2-4x is great and all but would only reduce price by 10-20$ for the consumer at best.

    Great for simple large objects such as boxes and containers, but hardly for bicycles and other similar goods.

    • Does the epoxy also cost that much? If so, it would further your argument that lowering the CF cost would have a negligible effect on bike costs.

      • Good question. The epoxy isn not incredibly expensive. A lot of the cost is in the skilled manual labor required to lay up a frame with a complicated laminate schedule. Fiber-laying robots exist for larger products such as the Boeing 787 and BMW uses fiber-laying robots to make carbon-fiber roofs for its cars in Washington State (USA). As fiber-laying robots get cheaper and smaller, carbon bike parts will get cheaper.

    • That’s a price for tow. There’s really about $100 or so in carbon fiber in a bike frame. The amount of carbon fiber used to make a frame is significantly higher due to all the waste material generated when the layup schedule requires something other than 0 or 90 degree.

    • I wanted to say the same, but…. also, right now is fight not for price of high end carbon, but how low you can go for automotive industry. And the most of problems are not in material but the curing time. Simply, Deer Born new OKUMA press can stamp hood in 6 seconds, out of $1/lb high quality steel, change the mold in 15 minutes and stamp something else. Curing hood out of CFP takes good 45 minutes!

  12. Not a fan. Lemond did a horrible job of supporting the Revolution Trainer after he sold the rest of the company. He also did an interview with Robbie VenturaI(I think) talking up lightweight steel as being better than carbon 2 or 3 years ago. Now he’s going to be a carbon producer. Say what? I hope he’s successful, but I will never buy another Lemond product.

  13. Ok. Imagine you have the “Holy Grail of carbon fiber” manufacturing. You want to make the most profit out of it. The best licensing agreement you can come up with is a small bicycle company ?

    • My thoughts exactly. The skeptic in me thinks they may have something interesting here, but they took it to the auto industry, and something was found lacking – they couldn’t scale production, QC wasn’t there, something.

    • If *he* thinks he won them fair and square, then he would do.
      Gosh, I wonder how people will look back at this episode 100 years from now…
      It didn’t effect me directly so I hold no malice (I’m sure that’s perhaps not the case for the people it did). AFAIC there are many more people In the world that have real blood on their hands from the death of real people. Lance is what he is.

  14. So now we get a hint of the real story. “not aerospace grade”… Well, I can assure you that the carbon in my bikes IS aerospace grade. What we’re talking about here is really that they have found a new method for developing a really low grade of carbon….not exactly a revolutionary advance…….. So we get cost savings but maybe not much in the way of weight savings compared with say, aluminum. So, one way to look at it is that they have almost invented a new material that slots in somewhere between carbon and alumninum, to make a gross generalization, and probably a lot closer to the alloy end of the cost/strength scale. The question is, are there applications where this material, at this cost, will be revolutionary… or will it just be pretty close to materials already in use?
    I also have to pile on here about the cost of carbon in bikes… cutting the cost of the material in half, even, would not have a significant effect of the retail price of a carbon bike. People just lose their ability to reason when they hear the word “carbon.”

    • the carbon in your bikes is absolutely not aerospace grade, since what i’m assuming you’re referring to as “aerospace grade” means it is certified for use in actual aircraft and satellites and costs literally ten times as much as the cheap stuff in your bicycles.

      • It’s the exact same stuff, same modulus, same factories etc. That certification is meaningless in an application like a bike (where the wing won’t fall off and kill 100 people) except as a bit of semantics for people to show off with.

        • Jimmy is correct. The biz is also correct. There are very few grades of carbon fiber, and only a handful of manufacturers.

          The most expensive carbon fibres are not produced for their strength and modulus, but for their thermal properties in combination with having acceptable strength and modulus. Quite possibly the most expensive carbon fibres are shit for bikes but good for the leading edges of the space shuttle and great for aircraft brakes – however, it is a little complex here because space shuttle parts are a rarity and aircraft brakes are contract build.

          Aerospace applications contain a whole spectrum of carbon fibre types/grades according to where they will be used and also how expensive they are.

          I design carbon fibre precursors and carbon fibres as a part of my living. Electrochemical energy storage features highly as a very high value application.

          A $2k bike might contain 2 kg of CF for a total mass of 8 kg, but I assure you that this contributes little to the cost … I am thinking more groupset, wheels, exclusivity of production and so on. Whatever the choice of carbon fibre, most of it is marketing, product placement, performance level – be it a T300 or T700 CF. There may be some performance benefit for some people with a higher grade CF, but WalMart if they decided to make CF bikes, would most likely not cut it – it is in the design and individual preference.

  15. Let’s not kid ourselves. The “cost” of producing a carbon fiber bike frame is irrelevant. Manufacturers will still charge whatever consumers are willing to pay. Specialized may figure out how to produce an S-Works Tarmac for $500 by cutting costs, but there’s no way they are going to lower the MSRP below the $3,750 they now charge. Why would they?

    • You’re right that cost will not decrease due to decreased cost of production, but lower production cost will decrease the cost of entering the market, increasing competition, which will then erode price. A raw materials savings they discuss in the article isn’t going to help much though!

    • Perhaps those underpaid workers in China will finally get a raise when the technology filters to there/they work out/copy how to do it. The real story will start when a serious Chinese individual opens a factory selling quality bikes and at a reasonable price with German QC standards.

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