Leonardo invests for the future and establishes a pilot carbon fiber plant in Italy in collaboration with MAE


Photo credit: MAE corporate video

Leonardo SpA (Rome, Italy) provides services to the aerospace, defense and security sectors, including: aerostructures, helicopters, aircraft, airborne and space systems, land and naval defense electronics and defense systems. As part of his mission to “develop and deploy cutting edge technology in the pursuit of safety, progress and value, today and tomorrow”, Leonardo has invested in an important new project with MAE (Fiorenzuola, Italy ).

MAE specializes in the engineering and construction of polymer fiber production lines. Located outside of Plaisance, the company’s core business is now the construction of production lines on a pilot to industrial scale for the carbon fiber precursor PAN (polyacrylonitrile) (see “CSIRO develops carbon fibers of better quality, more resistant and at lower cost ”). MAE was chosen by Leonardo to build a € 17 million carbon fiber pilot plant in Piacenza, as part of a larger research project aimed at innovating composite technologies (see “Leonardo and CETMA disrupt composites for lower cost and environmental impact ”).

The new factory is co-financed by the national business development agency Invitalia (Rome, Italy), which supports innovative programs aimed at boosting the Italian production structure. Carbon fiber is an increasingly strategic material in terms of production in the aerospace sector and in other fields such as automotive, energy and construction.

“The future is carbon fiber,” says Paola Rovellini, chief financial officer of MAE, who played a leading role in the deal with Leonardo for the new pilot plant. “The boom in carbon fiber demonstrates how it is already a strategic product in many industrial sectors internationally. And it will be an increasingly important material to face the ecological transition all over the world, by reducing emissions, energy consumption, production costs and improving product quality. Carbon fiber guarantees better results than much heavier materials like steel. She quotes aeronautics: “Think of the fuel savings obtained with much lighter airplanes. And this is true not only from an economic point of view, but also from an environmental point of view.”

“In the field of aeronautics, the history of composite materials began in the 1980s and Leonardo immediately grasped what was already considered a challenge for the future”, recalls Giancarlo Schisano, general manager of the aerostructures division. by Leonardo. “In recent years, the use of these composite materials has grown and not only in the aeronautics sector. The collaboration with MAE is another step forward for Leonardo in a strategic and competitive sector.

The Lampo project

The carbon fiber pilot plant is part of the three-year R&D project called “Lampo” which was designed in 2019. According to Italian press reports, Leonardo’s main goal with the project is expansion and l ‘improvement of its aerostructures plant in Foggia, where new types of carbon fiber with new properties will be used to improve aircraft performance and cost. This work will also exploit the skills and equipment of the Leonardo materials laboratory in Grottaglie (Taranto).

production of PAN precursors in carbon fiber

Photo credit: MAE corporate video.

MAE would have been chosen because it is one of the few companies in the world with comprehensive know-how throughout the carbon fiber supply chain. “MAE is a unique company in the design of factories and research and innovation on carbon fiber and, in general, on monomers and polymers”, explains Vincenzo Colla, regional advisor for the economic development of Emilie. -Romagna. Other project partners include Aviorec, a specialist in composites. (Anagni, Italy) and the National Research Council (CNR, Rome, Italy), which is the largest public research institution in Italy.

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

The Lampo project is thus considered to also allow the creation of ad hoc carbon fibers to improve the performance of automotive products. This fits well with the strategy of the Emilia-Romagna region to make innovation and research one of its distinctive features. “The evolution of materials is an area that the region also supports”, notes Vincenzo Colla, “with a view to a growing capacity for recycling and reuse, to assert a circular and ecologically sustainable economy. “

Leonardo invests for the future

“We started this partnership to develop, for the first time, the production of carbon fiber in Italy”, explains Stefano Corvaglia, materials engineer, R&D manager and head of intellectual property of the Leonardo Aerostructures division (Grottaglie, Pomigliano, Foggia , production facilities in Nola, southern Italy). He notes that Nicola Gallo, senior R&D engineer at Leonardo, has done much of the work to establish the Lampo project, its funding and regional / national partnerships.

“It’s a big project,” says Gallo. “The new carbon fiber plant is just one part. 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 at Leonardo’s factory in Foggia. It describes the five key elements of the overall 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 describes the MAE as a key partner for this research project. “They’re building a big factory that starts from the forerunner and goes through the whole process, including the carbon fiber processing at the end,” he notes. “About half of all the newly established carbon fiber precursor spinning mills over the past 10 years have been supplied by MAE. Having worked so intensively in the carbon fiber business, they have accumulated considerable experience. They also use their knowledge of acrylic production from the textile industry. This type of production is similar to PAN, but with different end product goals.

“With MAE,” continues Gallo, “we will develop and test new formulas for different types of carbon fibers as well as new precursors, including different formulations of PAN.” He notes that the more recent factories that MAE has built are not only for the production of precursors, but also for the production of carbon fiber. Notably, on its website, MAE notes that 50% of its revenue comes from China. A significant portion of its business is also sourced from carbon fiber manufacturing companies in Europe and the company has a branch in the United States. “But they also include formulations that have been tested for textile applications but have not been used for various reasons. MAE considers that some of them are also interesting for carbon fiber. Of course, we want to have a product comparable to standard composite materials used in structural applications today. But we will also try to improve this recipe.

Gallo says there are no plans to test microwave or induction heating for oxidation and charring at this time. He points out that 100% of carbon fiber factories in operation today only use electrical resistances or natural gas heating for oxidation and carbonization. “I think we’ll start by using standard equipment and make the line operational,” he explains. “Our initial R&D will focus on the type of process parameters that could affect the properties and cost of carbon fiber. For example, extrusion to increase the number of bits that can pass through the oven. This could provide cheaper fiber for new applications. But we will also look at the customization properties for specific composite solutions that Leonardo will develop in the future. “

Leonardo is already a leader in composite aerostructures, producing one-piece barrel sections and horizontal stabilizers for the Boeing 787 (top and bottom left) as well as the nacelles (top right) and other structures. She also develops new thermoplastic composite technologies and is project manager for Clean Sky 2 Next Generation Civil TiltRotor airplane (at the bottom right). Photo credit: Leonardo, Clean Sky 2.

The pilot plant will be completed in the first quarter of 2022, said Gallo, with a target to start production in the second quarter and have carbon fiber samples ready for testing and other R&D activities by the next. end of 2022. The capacity of the production line will be around 120 kilograms. / day for PAN precursor and 50 kilograms / day for carbon fiber, which equates to approximately 30 and 12.5 metric tonnes, respectively, at 250 days / year.

“After that, we’ll look at how to improve and change the parameters and process steps to target certain properties or reduce costs and increase productivity,” he adds. “In Italy, no carbon fiber product is currently being manufactured, and it is difficult to simulate the entire process of carbon fiber production in a laboratory. You only know the actual results of this type of complete production line. That is why we are investing in this pilot plant.

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