Carbon fiber composites for energy technology innovationThe U.S. Department of Energy announced the launch of a new initiative today meant to strengthen American clean energy manufacturing and enhance U.S. competitiveness.

Assistant Secretary of Energy Dr. David Danielson announced the creation of the new Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative at a Tuesday morning event at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, where officials also touted the early success of the laboratory’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility.

The new initiative will take a two-pronged approach to strengthening U.S. manufacturing competitiveness, according to a DOE fact sheet.

First, the program will fund research and demonstration projects intended to improve U.S. manufacturing capabilities for clean energy products and their components, including wind turbines, solar panels, and energy-efficient appliances, light bulbs, and vehicles.

In a written statement, Dr. Danielson said that the initiative aims to support innovations that will improve the cost-competitiveness of clean energy technologies and move them towards subsidy independence.

"After decades of targeted investments by the Department in American clean energy innovation, we have made tremendous progress, and we are in the unique position where a wide array of technologies—from solar power, wind power and electric vehicles to energy-efficient LED lighting and biofuels—are within five to 10 years of being directly cost-competitive without subsidies," Danielson wrote.

The Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative will also work to strengthen competitiveness across multiple manufacturing industries by supporting improvements in energy productivity—efforts that allow manufacturers to get more value out of less energy and lower their production costs.

The new effort will integrate a variety of funding opportunities and other efforts supporting manufacturing from across the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Advanced Manufacturing Office.

“This initiative will bring together a wide array of relevant EERE and Department of Energy offices, federal agencies, research institutions, and private sector partners to map out and implement a strategy to ensure that U.S. manufacturers are competitive in the global marketplace,” according to a DOE statement.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Carbon Fiber Technology FacilityThe event today at Oak Ridge was intended to spotlight one such DOE-funded research effort that is already working to advance U.S. manufacturing capabilities—ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (pictured at right). Event participants, including Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and U.S. Congressman Chuck Fleischmann (R-Chattanooga), toured the $34.7 million facility, which features state of the art “semi-production scale” facilities to demonstrate the production of light-weight, high-strength carbon fiber composites and their precursor materials.

The ORNL research facility is intended to demonstrate techniques that will reduce the costs of carbon-fiber components. The facility is capable of producing composites and precursors at near-commercial quantities. Researchers there aim to demonstrate that as production scale increases, costs will fall, creating new opportunities to utilize the light-weight carbon fiber composites, which offer tensile strengths stronger than steel.

Due to high costs or production, carbon fiber today is primary used in specialty products, such as race cars, Boeing’s new Dreamliner aircraft, and high-end golf clubs, bicycles and tennis rackets. Cracking the code on low-cost carbon fiber production could open up a whole new range of applications, including more efficient vehicles, lower-cost wind turbines blades and towers, and other industrial applications.

Under the new Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative, DOE aims to fund a variety of similar projects aimed at developing new U.S. manufacturing capabilities and advanced technology know-how.

The Initiative will entail an increase in funding for clean energy manufacturing research, development, and demonstration across the Department, according to Dr. Danielson. Additional details, including funding amounts, will be outlined in President Obama’s upcoming Fiscal Year 2014 proposed budget.

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, the president spotlighted both clean energy technology and advanced manufacturing as pillars of his vision for economic renewal.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it,” President Obama said. “We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries—we must claim its promise.”

The president also used his address to propose the creation of a new national network of manufacturing innovation institutes, calling for funding for 15 such institutes.

One facility in Youngstown, Ohio is already underway, working on applications of additive manufacturing technology, also known as "3D printing."

According to DOE officials, the Department will soon announce a new funding opportunity for a Clean Energy Manufacturing Institute as part of the expansion of this national network for manufacturing research.