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Net Energy Consequences of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer Composites

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Net Energy Consequences of Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer Composites in U.S. Light-Duty Vehicle Fleet Lightweighting


Carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) composites have performance characteristics (specific stiffness and strength) that are advantageous for clean energy products such as lightweight vehicles and efficient wind turbines. In transportation applications, the use of lightweight CFRP composites to replace conventional materials such as steel can provide major fuel energy savings during the use phase. However, carbon fiber (CF)-based composites are highly energy intensive to manufacture compared to conventional materials, and it can take many years for the fuel energy savings accumulated in the use phase to outweigh the increased manufacturing energy consumption. In some cases, it is possible that fuel energy savings will never overcome the embodied energy penalty. As a result, a full accounting of energy impacts based upon a life cycle analysis (LCA) approach is essential to evaluate the balance between increased energy demand to manufacture better performing products, and the downstream energy benefits resulting from their use.  This approach can provide insights regarding where improvements in the manufacture and use of CF and CFRP composites are needed to realize timely, economy-wide energy benefits. This paper presents life cycle assessments for CFRP composites manufactured via two pathways: conventional polyacrylonitrile-based CF, and a hypothetical alternative approach to manufacture lower energy carbon fibers used in CFRP composites. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s “LIGHTEn-UP” LCA tool [1] was used to estimate the net energy consequences of lightweighting the U.S. fleet of light-duty vehicles (LDVs) with CFRP composites in each case. We also examine the energy savings that could be realized through lower-energy precursors and through CFRP recycling. Results demonstrate that cost- and performance-effective CF recycling can play a key role in lowering the net energy consumption and associated emissions of CFRP materials.


Authors: William R. Morrow III, Sujit Das, Joseph W. Cresko, Heather P.H. Liddell


Conference: CAMX 2016 – Anaheim


SKU/Code: TP16-0163


Pages: 9

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