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Toray, the Japan-based multinational and the world's largest producer of carbon fibre, is investing in a chair for fundamental research in composite materials for Professor Ignaas Verpoest of the Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering. "We have been looking for collaboration partners in Europe. Professor Verpoest is a pioneer and a 'legend' in the composite material field in Europe," said Yukichi Deguchi, Toray's vice president for research and development.
"The method for making extremely stiff and strong carbon fibre was almost simultaneously invented by the English and Japanese," explains Professor Verpoest. "Japan in particular invested in the optimisation of carbon fibre production. The result speaks for itself: Japan produces 70 to 80 percent of all carbon fibre. Composite materials based on carbon fibres are widely used in aerospace and aviation. Two-thirds of the volume and half of the weight of the new Airbus 350 and Boeing 787 jumbo-jets – fuselage, wings, etc. – consist of carbon fibre composites. We ourselves have a long-term cooperation with EADS, the parent company of Airbus. Composites are also well established in the sport world because they are simultaneously light, strong and stiff. Think of carbon-frame racing bikes or poles for Nordic walking."
"The next big breakthrough is now underway in the auto sector. Cars must become increasingly more economical. But in terms of engine design and aerodynamics, we are approaching the limit. Manufacturers must now tackle vehicle weight. It’s actually quite crazy: when I drive a car, it takes 20 times my weight to transport my 80 kilograms. Today, each car contains ten or so kilograms of composite material, such as bumpers. The time has now come to start integrating composites into the chassis itself. Via a joint venture with Mercedes, Toray is contributing to reduce the weight of Mercedes cars considerably. Our research group also worked on the LFA, the Lexus flagship vehicle."
Lightweight and safe
Yukichi Deguchi, Toray's vice president for research and development: "A member of our lab worked as a researcher in Leuven for two years and built a strong relationship with Professor Verpoest and his team. In November, I met with Professor Verpoest and we agreed to begin a long-term collaboration." The format chosen for this collaboration was a three-year endowed chair with the possibility of extension.
The budget will go toward fundamental research into the further refinement of composite materials based on carbon and other fibres. Akihiko Kitano, general manager of Toray's Composite Materials Research Laboratory: "We are the market leader in carbon fibre technology based on polyacrylonitrile fibres (PAN), which we put to use when developing composites for the primary structures of aircraft. Together with Professor Verpoest, we want to increase our understanding of these materials and build new composites for use in lighter, safer aircraft." The researchers utilise advanced experimental techniques and software to predict the behaviour of composites.
Verpoest: "We have achieved promising results by mixing carbon fibres with tiny carbon nanotubes. Nanotechnology allows us to make tubes that are a thousand times finer than the fibre itself – we’re talking a few millionths of a millimetre! These nanotubes are stronger and stiffer than carbon fibres, making the composites more resistant to damage. Cracks appear less easily and when they do, they spread less rapidly. That's an important asset in a world where safety is so important. In an inter-faculty project within the Science, Engineering and Technology Group, we are even attempting to make carbon fibres out of nano-tubes – a totally new method. But that is of course a long-term project."
Natural fibres are a second promising research avenue, says Verpoest: "One-fourth of my research team of 35 is working on natural fibres from hemp, flax and bamboo. Flax-fibre, for example, is as stiff as aluminium, but twice as light. Our centre is an official consultant for the European flax and hemp industry and seeks out new extraction and processing techniques to optimise fibres for reinforcement of composite materials."
"The Toray endowed chair is not only important for financial reasons; it also enhances the international reputation of our research group. It really speaks volumes that this Japanese heavyweight chose our university as the anchor for its cooperation with the European academic world."
More information: www.toray.com