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First Nano-Enhanced Carbon Fiber Downhill Bike Rim Speeds into Spotlight
Key to the performance advantages of a World Cup-winning bicycle rim is a composite technology--based on carbon nanomaterials--that its developer believes could "change the game" for various high-growth industries.
The same nanotechnology that helped carry downhill bike rider Greg Minnaar to a victory at the 2012 World Cup Opener in South Africa is opening up to applications in a growing number of industries that can benefit from a carbon fiber technology called Arovex®, providing a stiff, tough, durable composite material that is lighter in weight and more electrically conductive.
Zyvex Technologies' nano-enhanced carbon fiber technology, which is a carbon-nanotube (CNT) and graphene-engineered composite material, is making strong headway into a slew of different industries, including aerospace, sporting goods, marine, automotive, and energy. "If you can make it (product) more durable without compromising its stiffness, that's a big advantage in those markets," said Lance Criscuolo, president of Zyvex Technologies. Zyvex's proprietary Kentera™ polymer technology allows nanotubes and nanographene to become compatible with each other and the host matrix, providing an advantage in toughness without compromising strength. Developments in new markets are opening up because of the multi-functional properties that the technology enables, where carbon fiber composites act more like metals with electrical conductivity and embedded sensor technology.
"What you're going to start seeing in the future is more and more companies leveraging carbon nanomaterials at the atomic level, and I think Zyvex is in a position to lead that revolution," Criscuolo said. "Once you can manipulate carbon materials in a manner that you want and you have more control over how they perform, you can really start to broaden the base of what you can do with it. Beyond smart structures, you can go further down and really borrow properties from other materials and incorporate those into the carbon atoms. It's going to take seminal polymer technology like we have -- the Kentera polymer -- that's going to allow all of these things to interact and work together," he said, adding that just as silicon is a building block of the semiconductor industry, the carbon atom will be a building block for the materials revolution.
Partnering with ENVE Composites, a Utah-based manufacturer of handmade carbon fiber bicycle rims and components, Zyvex enabled the first carbon-fiber rim specifically designed for the downhill cyclist. "During development and testing, the wheels have won over 50 podiums in competitions around the world," said ENVE founder Jason Schiers. "Downhill racing is extreme in nature. The fact that these new rims have survived the most challenging tracks in the world makes them truly one-of-a-kind."
Schiers explained that prior to using Zyvex's material for the rims, the company was having issues with cracking. "We started seeing significant gains from having a rim that cracked, to having what we really didn't think we'd ever see, which were rims that could race all year," he said. A racing team of two to three guys would typically go through 150 to 180 bike rims during a season. But World Cup downhill racing champion Steve Peat raced on one pair of the ENVE DH (downhill) wheels during the entire 2011 season, whereas traditional aluminum rims historically lasted him only one to three runs. The carbon wheel provides a significant durability, reliability, and performance gain over the aluminum wheel. "They're lighter, they're stronger, they corner better, they accelerate faster, and they track," Schiers said. "Your ability to steer them through rough stuff is phenomenally better because there's not as much deflection from the rim as you'd get from aluminum."
Expanding Applications in Different Industries
In the marine industry, Zyvex has partnered with Pacific Coast Marine to replace doors and hatches with Arovex on Coast Guard vessels, other military vessels, and commercial vessels where traditionally aluminum and steel were used (see "Partnership to Make Lightweight Marine Products Using Nano-Composites"). The result has been a dramatic reduction in weight where a 150 lb. door is being replaced by an Arovex door that only weighs 50 lbs. "That's one of the driving advantages of the technology--you can start replacing metal components with Arovex-made components and really lighten the entire structure," Criscuolo said, adding that entire boats are being built with the material, which makes them much lighter, stronger, and more fuel-efficient.
In January, an agreement was signed with Airbus to look at where the technology could be useful in the company's aircraft. Airbus is specifically interested in making lighter parts, as well as looking into giving the composite material some electrical conductivity. Another aerospace customer is looking into using Arovex for added stiffness and high abrasion resistance for its jet engines in an effort to enhance its erosion resistance from the effects of hail, sand, and dust exposure without adding any additional weight that would be required if using traditional carbon fiber systems.
For automotive, Arovex is being used for under-the-hood components where traditional plastic tends to warp from the heat generated from the engine. "Incorporating our technology in plastics gives them a better thermal characteristic and they hold their shape much better, so they can make them thinner and lighter and then withstand the environment that they're subject to," Zyvex's Criscuolo said.
A survey released by Lux Research in January named Zyvex a "Top 10 Innovator." The survey followed an October 2011 report from Lux that forecasted a bright future for advanced composites based on carbon fibers, carbon nanotubes, and graphene, projecting that the overall market will more than triple by 2020, reaching $25.8 billion. The report states that wind energy is expected to overtake aerospace as the largest user of advanced carbon materials, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the market for composites by 2020, compared with the current 35 percent. Criscuolo sees the Zyvex technology as having a big benefit when used on wind turbine blades. The technology will allow for the manufacturing of longer, stiffer blades and more efficient turbines that act as smart structures as well.
"If you can create a composite system that could either sense damage or generate its own heat, that would be beneficial," he said, explaining that a problem with wind blades in colder climates is that they tend to ice up. "Looking down the road, if we can provide that multi-functionality, that would be of great value to the wind energy market."
Embedding sensors to accommodate multi-functional structures would entail teaming up with a sensor company and an integration company to put the whole package together, Criscuolo mentioned. He added that he has already begun talks with representatives in the wind energy market and in energy exploration applications in which there is drilling two to three miles down into the earth for oil or natural gas.
"Our technology also works with seals and gaskets and applications like that. If you can make a gasket last longer, be more robust to extreme temperatures and environment, that's longer that they can stay down in that well looking for oil. So it's a huge cost advantage," Criscuolo said. "And if you could embed sensors into that technology, then they could know a seal was going to rupture before it actually ruptures, which costs them a lot of time and money to close off the well, extract the tools, repair them, and send them two miles back down the earth."
Zyvex's technology could also be used with electronics by combining the nanomaterials with rare earths, which would lower the cost due to the current scarcity of rare earths. "The nanotubes would borrow the properties of the rare earth material so that you need much less of the rare elements," Criscuolo explained. "In addition, if you could make a non-conductive part conductive [for example, a thermoplastic smart structure] by giving it capabilities it doesn't currently have, it could be a more active part of the electronic device itself."
Zyvex has spent the past four years building up a $40 billion supply chain to attract large customers like Airbus, serving a diverse market segment from aerospace to sporting goods. Rather than suppliers, Criscuolo refers to them as "partners," and stresses that with partners like the $10 billion dollar chemical company, Arkema, they are able to do customization of the nanomaterial for him if he needs it. "We've got a supply chain set up from raw material to finished goods manufacturers, and what that really helps us do is attract larger customers, like an Airbus. If they're confident in our supply chain, they're confident to work with us because what a company like Airbus doesn't want to happen is to develop a technology that they want to use, [yet] there's no way for them to get it in the volume and capacity that they need," Criscuolo said. "So we spent the last four years putting the pieces of those supply chains together. As a small company, we can serve big markets."
Designing the Zyvex Technology for Downhill Racing
Three years ago, Santa Cruz Bicycles, which sponsors some of the best downhill bike riders in the world, approached ENVE Composites about creating a superior bike rim. ENVE was experimenting with different materials, but didn't reach the cutting edge requirements until it came across Zyvex's carbon nanomaterial technology. "When we saw the gains that Zyvex introduced to us, we felt like we had a product that you could give to anybody and nobody was going to damage it," ENVE's Schiers said. "It really made significant difference to the performance and durability of the laminate. And so at that point, we thought we could announce it to the public without an issue or concern."
The World Cup arena is the most abusive environment you can put a bike through, with racers riding 10-inch travel bikes, jumping them 30 to 40 feet over rock drops that "would detonate most bikes," Schiers explained. "It's just very abusive and, up to a few years ago, bikes were 40 to 50 pounds," he said. "So carbon has really brought the weight down on those things, and now you've got people building 30-pound bikes, which is pretty significant. We're the only ones able to entertain that demographic with the carbon wheel, so we feel like we have a real gap over our competition."
In fact, the ENVE wheel made with Zyvex's Arovex has allowed riders with the nano-enhanced carbon wheel rim to completely dominate over the competition. "Now we've got a product that is near unbreakable, and it's significantly beyond what our competition can do," Schiers said. "For us, as a little company, to be able to innovate something at this level and have support of a group like Zyvex to really help us have the engineering horsepower of a much larger company--it's really awesome."
Schiers sees the development of the carbon downhill wheel as a personal victory, as well as a strong victory for his company. At a time when not too many advancements were being pursued for downhill racing because of its narrow market, Schiers decided to take the time and money to look into different avenues, eventually coming upon Zyvex. "It's more of a statement of what we're capable of producing," Schiers said, adding that he's in the process of pursuing other applications coming out within the next year and featuring the Zyvex Arovex technology. Working with Zyvex and Santa Cruz, ENVE is innovating new handle bars, seat posts, and swing arms.
Incorporating Zyvex's material into the manufacturing process was "pretty seamless in terms of strength and structure," Schiers said, adding that getting a superior cosmetic finish was the only challenge. Because ENVE's bike rims are "naked" without paint or a clear coat, they required a nice finish. Although it was a challenge to get the finish he desired due to the toughness of the resin, the reality was that all of the challenges with cosmetics ended up benefitting the rim in terms of strength. The trade-off was worth it and a superior cosmetic surface was achieved, he said.
"Nano-enhanced carbon fiber wheels are changing what people expect from a bike's ride quality," Schiers said. "Being the first nano-enhanced carbon fiber downhill clincher to win a World Cup is difficult. We are changing the game. The new DH rims are the best riding and the most durable rims on the market today."
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