R. Byron Pipes keeps a Tupperware box of carbon fiber knick-knacks inside his office at Purdue Research Park's Indiana Manufacturing Institute—a building so new it doesn’t even show up on Google Maps.
Apart from a large orange blob, (an interesting polymer-experiment-gone-wrong, he says), the knick-knacks—hinges, chains and molds—are all made of the same feather-light, stormy-gray material: carbon fiber composite.
Pipes is a professor and Executive Director of the new Center for Composites Manufacturing and Simulation, which takes up about half of the brand-new center, one of the latest public-private partnerships announced by the university.
Aside from the composites lab, the Indiana Manufacturing Institute will also be home to future public and private manufacturing companies interested in working with Purdue.
Pipes’ lab is the first tenant in the building. His center will work with private companies to research and test composite materials – essentially combining elements in new ways.
He says the lab’s main focus is carbon fiber composites—like his knick knacks. Despite being very strong, carbon fiber has a very low density and thus makes incredibly light components.
“Because the density of carbon is so low, compared to steel and aluminum, that makes them efficient,” he explained. “Also, they have very strong properties, so they’re both strong and light.”
That’s what makes carbon-fiber bikes so fast, he said.
“If you have the same size engine—namely, a person--you’re using less energy to propel a light one than a heavy one,” he said.
That’s why there’s a burgeoning interest in this material—it can create more energy-efficient vehicles.
The institute is funded through a federal Department of Energy project channeling $250 million into public-private partnerships with the goal of developing more energy-efficient manufacturing processes and materials.
Four states besides Indiana are involved in the composite manufacturing initiative.