Quantum Leap in Lightweight Construction: Yet Another Prize for ITA


Professor Thomas Gries und Dr. Michael Glowania from the RWTH Institute of Textile Technology (ITA) have won the JEC Innovation Award. They received the award for the discovery that pitch-based carbon fibers, which are arranged in a honeycomb structure, have a thermal conductivity of more than 27 W/mk and thus conduct heat as well as alloyed steel. In January 2013, this discovery already won them the first prize in the 2012 "NRW Inventing the Future" Competition.

  Photo of the Award Winners © JEC

This groundbreaking discovery may well lead to a paradigm shift in industrial production:  In the near future, important industrial sectors will be able to produce low-density components with high thermal conductivity out of carbon fibers and polymers.

Polymer fibers are significantly lighter than metal, which makes it possible to save large amounts of energy. This has a positive effect on important industrial sectors such as the automotive, aerospace and mechanical engineering industries: Sustainable energy savings and concomitant environmental benefits may well lead to competitive advantage worldwide.

Further Uses and Advantages

The temperature stability of the new material can reach about 180 degrees Celsius; it can be profitably used wherever lightweight construction and high thermal conductivity are essential. It weighs less than aluminum, and it can be employed in the construction of cars and aircraft, e.g. for battery cooling elements in electric cars or for helicopter empennages.


New Lightweight Approach for Industrial Use

Prof. Gries and Dr. Glowania have developed a heat-conductive sandwich lightweight structure made of carbon fibers. The high thermal conductivity of the well-aligned non-metal fibers is achieved by the use of pitch-based carbon fibers. The processing of these fibers, however,  is very challenging, as the material, with an elasticity modulus of 950 GPa, is very brittle.

Thus, so far, there was a problem in processing these fibers, as they were prone to breaking and becoming unusable. Dr. Glowania and Professor Gries now were able to address this problem in three steps, by

  1. enhancing the processing of the ultra-high modulus fibers,
  2. aligning the fibers within the component in the thickness direction, achieving a directional heat conduction that is efficient and saves costs, and by
  3. modifying the insulating polymer matrix in which the carbon fibers are embedded, thus achieving a higher heat conduction.

The awardees are "very happy that our development is internationally recognized by the JEC Award. The worldwide use of our lightweight approach has the potential to create competitive advantage in industry and to represent a step towards energy conservation.”

The JEC Innovation Award

The JEC Innovation Award, presented annual  at the  JEC Show in Paris, is part of the JEC Innovation Program. The program, created in 1998, aims to identify and promote the most innovative fiber composite solutions worldwide and to encourage companies to develop innovative solutions and thus to contribute to progress in the composite industry.