Brittany Crocker , USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
In the face of increasing demand, 4M, now a publicly traded company, is revolutionizing commercial carbon fiber manufacturing with plasma.
4M Industrial Oxidation, a Knoxville company that is commercializing a new method of carbon fiber production, has announced a reverse merger with Woodland Holdings Corporation.
The takeover allows the once-privately held company to take advantage of public trading status at a lesser cost.
“This reverse merger is a significant accomplishment for the 4M team,” said Rodney Grubb, 4M’s chairman and chief operating officer. “We believe the positioning of 4M as a publicly traded company will afford us the greatest opportunity to capitalize on the rapidly growing demand for low-cost carbon fiber around the world.”
4M’s parent company, RMX, worked with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to develop a new method for producing carbon fiber that uses plasma oxidation, and licensed the product last May.
RMX created 4M — named for plasma, the fourth state of matter — to commercialize the product. 4M is no longer a subsidiary of RMX but will continue to pay royalties to the company and to UT-Battelle.
Innovation to meet expectation
Demand for composite materials, including those made with carbon fiber, is expected to double in the next three years, according to the Department of Energy’s Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation.
“The big user today is aerospace. The fuselage of the 787 Boeing aircraft is made of carbon fiber composite, same for the newest of the jets coming from Airbus,” said Alan Liby, ORNL’s advanced manufacturing program director. “The use in automotive products is beginning to come on strong. There’s quite a bit of use in wind turbine blade manufacturing, a number of industrial purposes, and then there’s sports equipment, golf club shafts, fishing rods.
“In essence, anything that you want to be light weight and you want to be able to move around easily can benefit from carbon fiber and carbon fiber composites,” he said.
Typically, carbon fiber production takes place in three phases. First, bundles of hundreds of thousands of acrylic fibers are oxidized in an oven, then the fibers are carbonized in a super-heated oven sealed off from oxygen to prevent them from catching fire. After that, the surface of the fibers are treated so that they can be bonded to a polymer material and hardened to make light, stiff usable materials.
Grubb said the first phase is often the longest and most expensive. That’s the part that 4M’s plasma oxidation oven revolutionizes.
“Our oxidation oven is about one-third the size of conventional ovens, but it produces the same amount of industrial-grade product,” Grubb said.
It also uses about 75 percent less energy than a conventional oxidation oven, making it cheaper for material manufacturers.
“This technology will save the carbon fiber makers somewhere between $2 and $3 per pound of carbon fiber produced,” Grubb said. “It’s a big deal. A carbon fiber line produces 2.5 million pounds per year, so they should be able to save $5 million per year by using our technology.”
Grubb said the company also expects to create 20 local jobs.