Dana Briggs says the term “limitless innovation” is used often in Idaho Falls to describe how local companies strive for technological advancements.
“A big reason is that we are home to the Idaho National Laboratory where advanced science occurs on a daily basis,” says Briggs, economic development director for the City of Idaho Falls. “The research and development breakthroughs at INL and other technology hot spots in our region result in several spinoff companies that have incredible innovations.”
One such company is Advanced Ceramic Fibers, founded by Dr. John Garnier in 2012. Garnier was working as a scientist at Idaho National Laboratory when he co-invented a carbon-based fiber called Fi-Bar ™ with fellow scientist George Griffith.
Fi-Bar ™ is an ultra-high-performing fiber that is incorporated with metals such as aluminum, copper, steel, titanium or zirconium to make the reinforced metal much stronger and lighter. Fi-Bar ™ is also heat-resistant to a temperature of about 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit and is less vulnerable to corrosion, fatigue, impact, stress and even radiation than competitor fibers.
Garnier knew the product had great potential and wanted to ultimately commercialize the technology, so he retired from INL in November 2012 and started Advanced Ceramic Fibers the next day. Today, ACF has seven employees.
“The materials world has been waiting a long time to have reinforcing fibers like these to create new types of composites, and Fi-Bar ™ is even more disruptive because it can be produced at lower costs and higher volumes,” says Shawn Perkins, executive vice president of Advanced Ceramic Fibers. “All kinds of composite products can be manufactured to make metals much stronger, lighter and able to withstand much higher temperatures.”
Useful to the Department of Defense
Fi-Bar ™ is produced through a furnace process that converts outer layers of carbon fibers to alpha silicon carbide, which results in the enhanced strength and other positive qualities. Besides metals, the Fi-Bar ™ technology can be used in ceramics or polymers to create new types of composite materials that have never been achieved before.
“One use for Fi-Bar ™ could be in 2,700-degree-Fahrenheit turbine engines used by the U.S. Department of Defense,” Perkins says. “A hotter turbine engine runs more efficiently, reduces emissions and more importantly to the warfighter, the planes can fly faster, giving the air crew a distinct advantage in combat. The federal government has spent many years and many dollars trying to come up with a turbine engine that can withstand such hot temperatures. This fiber finally can make that goal possible.”
Perkins says Fi-Bar ™ can also be incorporated, for example, with zirconium as a wrapping around nuclear fuel rods so if there is an accident, the rods won’t melt and will maintain all the uranium fuel pellets.
“ACF has been awarded four patents on this technology and several more are pending” he says. “The Fi-Bar ™ technology can also result in lighter, stronger and more efficient high-voltage transmission lines, construction materials for bridges, light-duty vehicles, oil and gas extraction equipment, armor-plated military vehicles, heat exchangers and much more.”
Headquartered at the Innovation Center
For the time being, ACF is headquartered in the Idaho Innovation Center, which serves as an incubator and accelerator for entrepreneurs and startup companies in Greater Idaho Falls.
“We are still a pre-production facility, but we are ramping up our manufacturing capacity in anticipation of full commercialization and customer demand,” Perkins says. “There is still development needed to be done. At present, we can produce about 4,000 pounds of Fi-Bar ™ a year, but we are in the process of building another furnace that can improve our output to more than 50 tons annually.”
The ACF Fi-Bar ™ technology has piqued the interest of agencies like the Office of Naval Research and the U.S. Department of Energy, and Advanced Ceramic Fibers continues to apply for grants to help the company move forward.
“We are a typical startup company that has needed to bootstrap everything from the beginning, which is why the Idaho Innovation Center has been such an important asset to us,” Perkins says. “We have access here to secretarial services, business classes and training, legal assistance resources and financial advice. It’s a great place for entrepreneurs to have many of the necessary tools for success in one setting and at their fingertips. The Innovation Center is very important to us.”