In our special series to celebrate Carbon Nexus reaching 10 years of operation, Professor Jeffrey Wiggins reflects on the global impact of this world-class facility and how it unlocked the potential of carbon fibre never seen before by academia and industry.

I was first introduced to the idea of Carbon Nexus at a Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering (SAMPE) meeting in Salt Lake City in 2010. I attended with Boeing’s technology team, who I was working closely with on advanced aerospace and composite materials. At that time, Boeing had a strong interest in carbon fibre and were committed to building the 787 Dreamliner. Boeing were keen to learn more about carbon fibre as a structural material, which was being integrated into a very high percentage of their next generation structures.

In those days, we called the processing of carbon fibre a “black box” – we didn’t really understand a lot of the details associated with the preparation of carbon fibre because major suppliers were protecting their own trade secrets, tribal knowledge and intellectual property. This made it very difficult, even for a company the size of Boeing.

We were all aware that there was interest in establishing an open-source carbon fibre research facility somewhere on the planet and two locations were bubbling up to the surface simultaneously. One was in Oak Ridge in Tennessee, the other was at Waurn Ponds, Geelong on the Deakin University campus.

At the SAMPE meeting, we met with Professor Lee Astheimer, at the time Deakin’s Deputy Vice Chancellor Research, Professor Bronwyn Fox, then an associate professor leading the Composites research group at Deakin University, and the late Brad Dunstan, who was CEO of the Victorian Centre for Advanced Materials Manufacturing (VCAMM). That meeting left us very excited about the future advancement for carbon fibre development.

Deakin’s unique position

Professor Fox was gaining an outstanding academic reputation in the area of composite materials at that point in time and was very well respected and regarded at an international level.

Together with Brad Dunstan, she was really all over the planet – they were in Europe, they spoke to automotive areas with Ford and were working with DowAksa – showcasing AFFRIC – the Australian Future Fibres Research and Innovation Centre – a collaboration between Deakin, CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering (CMSE), and VCAMM – and the potential of a pilot-scale carbon fibre manufacturing and research centre.

CSIRO historically was one of the most recognised fibre science groups on the planet. When you look at their depth of fibre science engineering knowledge and add the carbon fibre science and engineering knowledge from Deakin, and the access to that from the standpoint of learning and development – it was all very attractive for all of us.

After discussing this at the Salt Lake City meeting we saw that Deakin had a unique situation from the standpoint of not only the carbon fibre capability but from a research perspective to better understand fibre from all the way from the white fibre precursor through to the carbonisation.

It wasn’t too long after that that we took a visit to Geelong for the first time to gain more information and knowledge.

Carbon Nexus – an international collaboration

Carbon Nexus co-founder Professor Bronwyn Fox and Professor Jeffery Wiggins inspecting the construction of Carbon Nexus.

Australia has always been friendly and open – and Deakin has an enthusiasm that showed us a lot of deference and respect with regards to building international collaboration with global leaders and global experts within their team.

The synergy in which the teams across CSIRO, the university, composites community and the government were working together to build something globally unique for Australia and making the rest of the world a part of that – was very appealing to us. The fact they were able to relocate 80 CSIRO scientists onto the Deakin campus to supplement and buttress the effort furthered that support.

At the time, Ford was struggling in Geelong, the world was transitioning in many ways and Australia was trying to redefine itself with higher technology. Our goal was to see a carbon fibre company located in Geelong that was ready to supply the Pacific Rim. That type of economic development was and is the ultimate goal.

The official opening of Carbon Nexus in 2014.

What Carbon Nexus has been able to do is bring awareness to the composite industry and the wider academic community.

An example is the newly established Australian Composites Manufacturing CRC (AMC CRC), a $150 million collective investment between industry and academia. There are now incredible facilities at the University of Queensland for hypersonics and high-temperature chemistries. Many of those outcomes are a direct result of the work initiated through Carbon Nexus. The composite science and engineering that comes from Carbon Nexus continues to have a trickle-down effect into big things that happen in Australia today – and has succeeded in unlocking the potential of carbon fibre.

Professor Jeffrey Wiggins is a Professor of Polymer Science and Engineering at the University of Southern Mississippi who specialises in polymer matrix carbon fibre reinforced composite science and engineering. He was a Thinker in Residence at Carbon Nexus where he primarily provided assessment and advice on Carbon Nexus.