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Recruiting technicians for ORNL’s experimental Carbon Fiber Technology Facility

Innovative technology has the potential to alter the advanced materials industry

Dave Masters (pictured front) is a process engineer for Hills, Inc., a Melbourne, Fla.-based company that specializes in the design and fabrication of fiber spinning equipment and technologies. He and ORAU Carbon Fiber Technician Intern Ben Lane (pictured back) are testing the new melt spinner located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Carbon Fiber Technology Facility. Photo provided courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Dave Masters (pictured front) is a process engineer for Hills, Inc., a Melbourne, Fla.-based company that specializes in the design and fabrication of fiber spinning equipment and technologies. He and ORAU Carbon Fiber Technician Intern Ben Lane (pictured back) are testing the new melt spinner located at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility. Photo provided courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

What do Formula One racing, industrial robotics, aerospace engineering and high-end sports equipment all have in common? Products within each of these industries are extremely strong and tremendously light-weight thanks to carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer, a composite material that has a quarter the density of steel, but several times its strength. The process of creating carbon fiber, which can vary depending on how the material is applied, is still too expensive to manufacture and deploy on a wide-scale.

A partnership between ORAU, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Roane State Community College is designed to change that through an experimental pilot project that aims to re-energize American manufacturing and create new jobs in this field.

The pilot project, which has taken shape as ORNL’s new Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, leverages the lab’s materials science research capability and the college’s ability to train workers using carbon fiber composites and high-tech machines. ORAU’s science education specialists expanded the existing Laboratory Technology Program—which is managed on behalf of ORNL for a variety of hands–on technical training programs—as a vehicle for identifying, recruiting and administering the appointments of more than 20 participants within the program’s first year of operation, which began in 2012.

Those selected for the program were trained through Roane State’s Advanced Materials Training and Education Center and were later placed at the $35 million Carbon Fiber Technology Facility, located in Oak Ridge’s Horizon Center Business Park. Each appointment lasts for a full year with the option to renew for an additional year.

“Those individuals who were accepted into the Laboratory Technology Program have the opportunity to work as technicians in a factory-like setting, while also helping to shape the future of the composites industry,” said Dr. Dean Evasius, ORAU science education programs vice president and director. “This gained experience not only becomes valuable to the participants, but also to ORNL and other local companies as we look forward to developing a highly skilled, regional workforce around this activity.”

Initial responsibilities for these men and women involved applying their training to real-world plant operations such as setting up laboratories, developing safety standards, as well as testing raw materials and advanced processing techniques on the production line. In addition to plant operations, participants were also backed with the support of researchers at the lab, a union that demonstrated the perfect blend of theory and practice.

“Establishing partnerships between ORNL researchers and those technicians working at the facility is critical to being successful in this pilot project,” said Connie Jackson, operations manager for ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility. “We’re more likely to succeed in improving the cost effectiveness of producing carbon fiber on a large scale when academia and practitioners teach and learn from one another.”

Through this unique collaboration, the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility’s goal is to develop and test industry standards that would lower the current cost of manufacturing carbon fiber from $15 per pound to $7 or less a pound. Doing so would lead the way in the application of carbon fiber to mainstream auto production, aerospace, alternative energy and many other industries.

“If we’re able to develop a process that significantly lowers the cost to produce carbon fiber, then the opportunities to apply this material to the broader market are endless,” said Jackson. “That would translate to more, high-skilled manufacturing jobs and the prospect of positioning the U.S. as a leader in the composite materials industry.”

For more information and details about how to apply, visit the ORNL Laboratory Technology Program website.

Participant Profiles

Rick Chambers

Lab Tech participant says bad times do not last forever

When Rick Chambers unexpectedly found himself jobless after 35 years of employment, he completed a free manufacturing training program and gained the skills needed to succeed in the Laboratory Technology Program at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at ORNL.

Jim Kron

Lab Tech program gives AMTEC participant a second chance at success

After a nearly fatal car accident rendered Jim Kron jobless, he turned to Roane State Community College’s Advanced Materials Training and Education Center where he gained skills he now employs at the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at ORNL.


Did you know?

According to a study conducted by Lucintel for the American Composites Manufacturers Association, worldwide demand for carbon fiber by 2017 could increase by about three times the existing annual demand.

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