Leonardo invests in the future, built in collaboration with MAE. Pilot plant for carbon fibers in Italy

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Photo credit: MAE corporate video

Leonardo SpA (Rome, Italy) provides aerospace, defense and security services including: aircraft structures, helicopters, aircraft, aerospace systems, land and sea defense electronics and defense systems. As part of its mission to “develop and deploy advanced technology today and tomorrow in pursuit of safety, progress and value”, Leonardo invested in a new important project with MAE (Fiorenzuola, Italy).

MAE specializes in the engineering and construction of production lines for polymer fibers. The core business of the company located outside of Piacenza is now the construction of production lines on a pilot to industrial scale for carbon fiber PAN (polyacrylonitrile) precursors (see “CSIRO develops higher quality, higher strength and lower cost carbon fibers”). MAE was selected by Leonardo to build a € 17 million carbon fiber pilot plant in Piacenza as part of a larger research project on composite technology innovation (see “Leonardo and CETMA are revolutionizing composites for lower costs and environmental impact”).

The new factory is co-financed by the national business development agency Invitalia (Rome, Italy), which supports innovative programs to strengthen the Italian production structure. Carbon fiber is a material that is becoming increasingly strategic in manufacturing in the aerospace sector and other areas such as automotive, energy, and construction.

“The future is carbon fiber,” says Paola Rovellini, Chief Financial Officer of MAE, who was instrumental in the agreement with Leonardo for the new pilot plant. “The boom in carbon fiber shows that it is already a strategic product in many industrial sectors internationally. And it will be an increasingly important material in order to face the ecological change worldwide, to reduce emissions, energy consumption, production costs and to improve product quality. “Carbon fiber guarantees better results than much heavier materials like steel.” Space: “Let’s just think of the fuel savings that can be achieved with much lighter aircraft. And not only from an economic point of view, but also from an ecological point of view.”

“The history of composite materials in the aerospace sector began in the 1980s and Leonardo immediately recognized what was already a challenge for the future,” recalls Giancarlo Schisano, Managing Director of the Aerostructures Division at Leonardo. “In recent years, the use of these composite materials has not only increased in aviation. For Leonardo, the collaboration with MAE is another step forward in a strategic and competitive sector. “

The Lampo project

The pilot plant for carbon fiber is part of the three-year R&D project “Lampo”, which was designed in 2019. According to Italian press reports, Leonardo’s main objective with the project is to expand and improve its aircraft structure plant in Foggia, where new types of carbon fibers with new properties are used to improve aircraft performance and costs. This work also uses the skills and equipment of the Leonardo material laboratory in Grottaglie (Taranto).

Manufacture of carbon fiber PAN precursors

Photo credit: MAE corporate video.

MAE was reportedly selected because it is one of the few companies in the world with extensive expertise along the carbon fiber supply chain. “MAE is a unique company when it comes to designing plants and carrying out research and innovation on carbon fibers and on monomers and polymers in general,” explains Vincenzo Colla, Councilor for Regional Economic Development in Emilia-Romagna. Other project partners are the composite materials specialist Aviorec (Anagni, Italy) and the National Research Council (CNR, Rome, Italy), the largest public research institution in Italy.

The Lampo project is said to be a technological competitive lever for the main sectors of the Italian economy. For example, carbon fiber is increasingly being used not only in the aerospace industry, but also in automotive engineering. Less than 100 kilometers from Piacenza, for example, is the Emilian Motor Valley, home to Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Dallara, all of which use a lot of carbon fiber.

The Lampo project therefore also enables the production of ad hoc carbon fibers to improve the performance of automotive products. This fits well with the Emilia Romagna Region’s strategy of making innovation and research one of its defining characteristics. “The development of materials is an area that the region also supports,” notes Vincenzo Colla, “in view of a growing capacity for recycling and reuse to reinforce a circular and green economy.”

Leonardo invests in the future

“We started this partnership to develop carbon fiber production in Italy for the first time,” says Stefano Corvaglia, materials engineer, head of R&D and IP manager of the Leonardo Aerostructures Division (Grottaglie, Pomigliano, Foggia, Nola production sites, southern Italy). ). He notes that Nicola Gallo, Principal R&D Engineer at Leonardo, did much of the work to build the Lampo project, its funding and regional / national partnerships.

“This is a big project,” says Gallo. “The new carbon fiber plant is only part of it. Our goal is to develop new technologies for large carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) parts, such as the Boeing 787 horizontal stabilizer, which is manufactured in the Leonardo factory in Foggia. ”He describes the five most important parts of the entire R&D program:

  • New tools for monolithic parts to increase reconfigurability and reduce costs
  • New automated inspection technologies
  • Automated repair technologies
  • Automated assembly of large parts
  • New materials for future opportunities

Photo credit: MAE corporate video

Gallo names MAE as an important partner for this research project. “You’re building a large facility that starts with the pre-product and goes through the entire process, including treating the carbon fiber at the end,” he notes. “Around half of all newly built carbon fiber precursor spinning systems in the last 10 years have been supplied by MAE. Having worked so intensively in the carbon fiber business, they have gained extensive experience. They also use their knowledge of acrylic production from the textile industry. This type of production is similar to PAN, but with different goals for the end product. “

“With MAE,” continues Gallo, “we will be developing and testing new formulas for different types of carbon fibers as well as new precursors, including different PAN formulations.” He notes that the latest facilities MAE has built are not just for the manufacture of intermediate products, but also for carbon fiber production. On its website, MAE specifically states that 50% of its sales come from China, but this is expected given that China produces more than half of the world’s man-made fibers. A significant portion of the business also comes from carbon fiber manufacturers in Europe and the company has an office in the US. “You have an idea that could be the right precursor to high-quality carbon fiber,” says Gallo. “But they also understand formulations that are tested for textile applications but not used for various reasons. MAE also sees some of them as interesting for carbon fiber. We definitely want a product that is comparable to the standard composites used in structural applications today. But we will also try to improve this recipe. “

Gallo says there are currently no plans to test microwave or induction heating for oxidation and carbonation. He points out that 100% of the carbon fiber systems in operation today only use electrical resistors or natural gas heating for oxidation and carbonization. “I think we’re going to start using standard equipment and get the line up and running,” he explains. “Our initial R&D focus will be on the process parameters that could affect the properties and cost of carbon fibers. For example, extrusion to increase the number of cables that can pass through the furnace. This could provide cheaper fibers for new applications. But we will also deal with tailor-made properties for specific composite material solutions that Leonardo will develop in the future. “

Leonardo is already a leader in composite aircraft structures, producing one-piece treads and horizontal stabilizers for the Boeing 787 (top and bottom left) as well as gondolas (top right) and other structures. It also develops new thermoplastic composite technologies and is the project manager for Clean Sky 2 Next Generation Civil TiltRotor plane (bottom right). Photo credit: Leonardo, Clean Sky 2.

The pilot plant will be completed in Q1 2022, according to Gallo, with the goal of starting production in Q2 and having carbon fiber samples ready for testing and other R&D activities by the end of 2022. The capacity of the production line will be in the region of 120 kg / day for PAN precursors and 50 kg / day for carbon fiber, which corresponds to around 30 and 12.5 tons at 250 days / year.

“Then we will investigate how we can improve and change parameters and process steps in order to achieve certain properties or reduce costs and increase productivity,” he adds. “There are currently no carbon fiber products made in Italy and it is difficult to simulate the entire carbon fiber manufacturing process in a laboratory. You only know real results from such a complete production line. That is why we are investing in this pilot plant. “

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