Predicting the properties of lightweight carbon fiber composites

Carbon fiber-reinforced plastics represent a promising lightweight replacement for heavy steel. However, for carbon fiber to be widely adopted, new, more economical composites need to be developed. Unfortunately, carbon fiber properties are difficult to model, as they depend on complex features such as fiber loading, length distribution and orientation.

Now researchers at the DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), in partnership with Toyota, Magna, carbon fiber supplier PlastiComp, and software provider Autodesk, have developed a set of predictive engineering tools that could speed the development of more economical carbon fiber materials.

Currently, in order to test new composite components, carmakers must build molds, mold parts, and test them – a long and costly process. Using the PNNL-led team’s engineering software, manufacturers will be able to evaluate the structural characteristics of proposed new carbon fiber composites without building molds, allowing designers to experiment and explore new ideas much more quickly.

The team used Autodesk Moldflow software to predict fiber orientation and fiber length distribution in molded components. Using materials from PlastiComp, long carbon fiber components were molded and the fibers extracted for measurement. PNNL then compared the predicted properties from the simulation software to the test results of the molded fibers, and found that the software tool successfully predicted fiber length distribution in all cases and fiber orientation in 88 percent of cases.

PNNL worked with Magna and Toyota to analyze the performance gains and costs of long carbon fiber components versus standard steel and fiberglass composites. PNNL found the polymer composite studied could reduce the weight of auto components by over 20 percent. However, production costs can be 10 times higher than those of steel.

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Source: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory