Dr. John Schneiter, CEO of Free Form Fibers and the Director of miSci Science Center in Schenectady, New York, talks to AZoM about Inorganic High Performance Fibers (HPFs).
Could you please provide a brief introduction to Free Form Fibers (FFF)?
Free Form Fibers (FFF) is an early stage, privately held company in Saratoga Springs, NY that has developed the technology of Laser-assisted Chemical Vapor Deposition (LCVD) to create inorganic High Performance Fibers (silicon carbide [SiC] and boron carbide [B4C] are two examples) for use in a variety of challenging applications.
These applications appear in military and aerospace (turbo machinery, rockets, advanced structures), automobile, biomedical, energy and other industries that require advanced materials with exceptional strength, stiffness, heat resistance and/or chemical resistance.
It is reasonable to say that if a material has been made using CVD, chances are quite good that we can make it in fiber form.
Based on your approach to fiber production, How would you describe the main properties to your high-performance fibers?
Most importantly, the fibers we make are pure. Unlike other approaches to fiber production that use polymeric precursors that introduce unwanted impurities in the final product, our process generates pure materials with no performance-robbing contaminants. This means that our SiC fibers, for example, exhibit the known strength and temperature properties associated with pure beta silicon carbide.
What are the main applications for your products?
Our major focus today is directed at silicon carbide for use in next-generation Ceramic Matrix Composites (CMCs), primarily for next-generation turbo machinery hot section parts, and perhaps also in future nuclear fuel assemblies and channel boxes.
In addition, we have produced B4C fiber to explore its properties for use in body and CMC vehicle armors. There are also some recent ideas having to do with blending our fibers with existing fibers to produce interesting new “yarns”.
Could you please provide a summary on the propriety process?
Our process at its core is CVD – chemical vapor deposition. The simplest way to think about it is to consider a “seed” fiber introduced into a chamber filled with precursor gases, on the tip of which you focus a laser beam.
The tip will get hot very quickly and the local gases – say Silane and ethylene for SiC – will break down, and silicon and carbon atoms will deposit on the fiber tip in the form of SiC.
In this way a SiC filament actually grows, and if you pull it out of the reactor at the growth rate, you will produce an arbitrarily long SiC fiber. We can do this 30 to 40 fibers at a time now, and are scaling this up to multiple hundreds.
What are the advantages of this breakthrough technology?
The greatest advantage by far is the material quality of the resulting fibers. Never before have pure, unadulterated fibers been available in materials like SiC or B4C or Boron Nitride (BN). This means that the high performance material properties associated with a bulk material like SiC can finally be achieved in fiber form. Another strong advantage from our point of view is that this is a platform technology.
By that I mean it is possible to use the same basic system to produce all manner of different materials. Indeed, we have actually produced carbon, boron, B4C and SiC fiber in the same system on the same day.
It is no longer the case that a given production facility can only produce a given material; the same hardware can produce many different materials.
Finally, a slight variant of the technology allows us to coat fibers as well. For example, SiC fibers can be coated with BN and coated again with SiC before ever leaving the reactor, obviating the need for customers to contend with this difficult and costly step themselves.
Can you discuss the primary areas of application for free form fibers?
Our fibers are very valuable to manufacturers of next-generation Ceramic Matrix Composite (CMC) products for high performance applications.
These fibers will also find their way into new-age yarns and fabrics over time. Finally, certain materials, for example magnesium diboride (MgB2), are superconductors and difficult to produce today.
It may well be that such fibers can be produced using LCVD technology to produce superconducting electrical conductors directly.
Are there any long-term development plans for your products?
We are presently engaged in scaling the technology for commercial production, both in terms of fiber count as well as production speed, and these efforts are going quite well.
As for the products themselves, near-term plans are to develop coated SiC fiber for commercial sales, with longer-term activities centered around other materials such as BN and B4C, although again, those materials will come on line fairly quickly because of the platform nature of the technology.
How do you plan on developing this technology further?
We will continue to push the technology for commercial scale in terms of fiber count and speed of growth. We are deeply involved in developing the coating process as well. Future development will center around other fiber materials such as B4C, BN, MgB2 etc.
How do you see this technology progressing over the next decade?
We believe that this technology will become the platform for future production of high performance fibers. We expect further improvements in fiber count and production speed as time goes on, as well as in multi-layer coating.
Finally, we fully expect new markets to open up as engineers and designers come to understand that materials never before obtainable in fiber form – materials such as boron, B4C, BN, tungsten carbide and hafnium carbide – can actually be produced.
Where can we find further information on your products and services?
We welcome visitors to our website at www.fffibers.com. We also welcome inquiries at [email protected].
About Dr. John Schneiter
John Schneiter is an experienced high technology entrepreneur. He is presently CEO of Free Form Fibers, a high tech materials company engaged in the development of high performance ceramic fibers for next generation composites applications.
Prior to that John co-founded GlobalSpec, a “vertical search engine” for engineers, in 1996 and served as President for ten years, helping to grow the company from a four person start-up to a 225 person leader in the engineering information market.
Under his leadership GlobalSpec was twice granted the “Model of Excellence Award” by InfoCommerce and was named in the “25 Companies to Watch” list by Cahners. Prior to GlobalSpec he spent a dozen years at the GE Corporate Research and Development Center where he was acting manager of the Control Systems Program.
Dr. Schneiter is a director of Free Form Fibers and the miSci Science Center in Schenectady, New York. In 2008 he received the Tech Valley Entrepreneur of the Year award for his work in GlobalSpec, Veratag, and the many early stage companies he has helped with guidance and advice.
He received his B.S. with Honors (Summa Cum Laude) in mechanical engineering from the University of Connecticut, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering with a minor in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He holds sixteen patents.
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