Dr. Amod Ogale of Clemson University has received $2 million and will work with a group of researchers across the country to lower the cost of high-tech materials that have helped make airplanes and luxury cars more fuel efficient but remain too expensive for price-sensitive products.

Amod Ogale inspects some carbon fiber with his team in their Earle Hall lab.

Ogale, the director of the Center for Advanced Engineering Fibers and Films and Dow Chemical Professor of Chemical Engineering,  has been working for more than 30 years to create composite materials that are stronger and lighter than steel. Now he will turn his attention to making the materials less expensive.

Falling prices for composite materials would mean they could be used in more automobile and airplane parts to help make them lighter. When it comes to fuel efficiency, every ounce counts.

Ogale’s latest round of funding comes as part of a collaboration with the Center for Composite Materials at University of Delaware. The center, which is leading the research, has received $14.9 million from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency for the Tailorable Feedstock and Forming Program.

Jack Gillespie, the director of the center, is leading the team. Researchers from Drexel University and Virginia Tech are also collaborating.

“It’s an honor to be part of such a talented team,” Ogale said. “Carbon fibers are commercially used in high-performance aircraft applications, including some in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. However, such fibers are also very expensive, so there is significant interest in reducing their cost.”

Tanju Karanfil, vice president of research at Clemson, congratulated Ogale and his team on taking part in the project.

“The collaboration will help further Clemson’s reputation for excellence in advanced materials research,” Karanfil said. “Dr. Ogale has worked with composite materials for more than 30 years. That he and his team were selected are testament to his leadership in the field.”

Composite materials are made up of strands of carbon fibers that look as unremarkable as string when wrapped on a spool. But when they are glued together with special polymers, they form super-strong materials that can be fashioned into a wide range of products, ranging from car and airplane parts to helmets and golf clubs.

The objective of the research is to make a low-cost feedstock–which is the raw material that goes into composite materials– and a manufacturing process.  Researchers hope to create a new type of composite material they will call TuFF, which stands for tailorable universal feedstock for forming.

Ogale plans to use his expertise in working with carbon fibers on a microscopic level. The diameter of each carbon fiber is one-tenth that of a human hair, yet the fiber is three times stronger than steel.

Ogale and his group plan to generate a novel microtexture in carbon fibers.

“We will help the team understand how the molecular structure and processing conditions will influence the microstructure and strength of the resulting carbon fibers,” Ogale said.

The new material could revolutionize the use of composite materials worldwide, providing a cost-effective replacement for small metal parts meeting aerospace performance requirements, researchers said.

The success of TuFF as a new material is expected to be transformative for complex curvature composite structures for aerospace and automotive applications in the defense and commercial sectors.

“UD­CCM is excited to lead a team of composite experts from Clemson University, Drexel University and Virginia Tech to develop a new composite material and manufacturing process,” said Rob Adkinson, who is the TuFF program manager at the University of Delaware. “Bypassing all of the manufacturing problems associated with advanced composites, our approach will allow us for the first time to make composite parts having aerospace properties at automotive prices.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Science, congratulated Ogale on the collaboration.

“Dr. Ogale has done pioneering work in composite materials,” Gramopadhye said. “His work with this nationwide team could be transformative for the automotive and aerospace industries, including those in South Carolina.”

Ogale is a Fellow of the Society of Plastics Engineers and has been internationally recognized for his contributions to carbon fibers and reinforced plastics.  He received the 2013 Graffin Lecturer Award from the American Carbon Society.

(written by Paul Alongi, CECAS)