Knoxville-based composite materials research institute gets renewed federal funding

Volkswagen, railroads, truckers all benefit from new lighter-weight materials

Contributed Photo / Steve McKnight, acting director of the Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Technologies office of the U.S. Department of Energy, announced Tuesday in Knoxville that the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation is receiving a funding renewal from DOE.

A Tennessee research institute formed in 2015 to develop new composite materials for American manufacturers became the first of the nation's 16 clean energy institutes to have its federal funding renewed Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Energy.

DOE said it will provide another $6 million in the next year to support the Knoxville-based Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation, which has already received $70 million of federal funding and $180 million of support from its member partners for research and commercialization of new materials.

"IACMI is living, breathing proof that when we connect our nation's leading experts across the manufacturing value chain to listen, learn and share ideas and best practices, we can have a big impact," DOE acting Assistant Secretary Alejandro Moreno said during a ribbon-cutting for a new institute collaboration facility.

In its first eight years, the composite materials research institute has already developed stronger and lighter-weight materials used in more than 60 industry-led technical projects. Among the projects the institute has helped has been the development of a composite used by Volkswagen for the lift gates on the Chattanooga-made VW Atlas. The new composite is 35% lighter and 9% cheaper than the steel composites it replaced.

Jeff McCay, president of the Chattanooga-based Composites Application Group, said businesses in his group have partnered with the institue and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory since 2008, when the federal lab was first awarded $30 million to develop low-cost carbon fiber. McCay said the Composites Application Group, which is wholly owned by Top Five Inc. in Chattanooga, is one of more than 100 companies that have worked with the Knoxville institute to develop and commercialize a number of composite materials for different manufacturing and transportation use.

McCay said his group worked with the institute to commercialize a composite used by rail car manufacturers to reduce the weight of a rail car by 4,500 pounds, which means the railroad can carry more payload with fewer cars. Similarly, the Composites Applications Group helped significantly reduce the weight while maintaining the structural strength of 53-foot truck refrigerated trailers built by Wabash National, the biggest producer of tractor trailers.

"Bringing lightweight, thermal-efficient and corrosive-resistant solutions to these markets is making a tremendous difference, and we couldn't be more excited about this announcement of continued funding for the institute," McCay said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "IACMI brings a tremendous amount of horsepower into the composites space through its collaboration and research."

A lot of what is happening with electric vehicles and in other markets is requiring more fuel-efficient, light-weight materials, McCay said.

DOE estimates that since the institute began in 2015, the research facility has supported the creation of 3,000 jobs at composite materials and parts manufacturers and spurred investment of $75 million in five states.

"Composites have the power to improve everyday lives," Chad Duty, chief executive for the institute, said Tuesday during a ceremony in Knoxville. "Composite technology will continue to play a crucial role as we develop more sustainable solutions to our country's energy, transportation and infrastructure challenges. DOE's continued investment in IACMI will accelerate our progress toward achieving these goals."

The institute has also helped develop and commercialize novel thermoplastic wind turbine blades that are recyclable and lower in cost to help propel more wind power generation.

The institute is one of 16 Manufacturing USA institutes established under former President Barack Obama to catalyze advanced manufacturing and materials applications and is the first to receive the renewal federal funding.

"We can't wait to see how this renewed partnership helps IACMI channel the collaborative spirit that it has into tangible innovation," U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement Tuesday.

Granholm said Tennessee has become an epicenter for advanced composites and manufacturing innovation, especially with the expected future growth in the production of electric vehicles and electric batteries.

— Compiled by Dave Flessner