Carbon fiber might not seem like the most exciting subject in the world, but it helped take a team of Port Townsend robotics students to the world stage, and became the basis of a partnership between …
Carbon fiber might not seem like the most exciting subject in the world, but it helped take a team of Port Townsend robotics students to the world stage, and became the basis of a partnership between those students and Peninsula College.
During the fourth annual Mini Maker Fair, presented by the Port Townsend STEM Club Oct. 6, event organizer and high school senior Ella Ashford explained how her “Sea Dragons” team went from being named Rookies of the Year in 2016 to placing fourth in the world at the International MATE ROV Competition in the summer of 2018.
The Sea Dragons had already placed second in the Marine Advanced Technology Education Remotely Operated Vehicle competition for the Pacific Northwest region that spring, but because their team of middle and school students was competing with teams made up of high school and college students, Ashford knew they needed to step up their performance.
To redesign the Sea Dragons’ ROV, Ashford recounted how the Sea Dragons reached out to the Composite Recycling Technology Center, a nonprofit center that houses Peninsula College’s advanced manufacturing and composite technology program.
“It needed to be lightweight and very durable,” said Ashford, who credited the CRTC with helping the Sea Dragons learn how to design and build the new ROV. “And they did it all for free.”
As a result, the Sea Dragons took fourth in the world in overall competition and third in presentations, with only Russia and Macau ahead of them.
“What this does is create a robotics skills pipeline,” Ashford said. “It enables us to work with local college students, and to create jobs in our community that can solve the problems of tomorrow.”
Colin Kahler is a second-year advanced composites student at the CRTC whose praise for Ashford and the Sea Dragons matched what she’d bestowed on him and the CRTC.
“I got into this field because I wanted to make things stronger and lighter,” Kahler said. “I’m 27 now, and I was far behind where these kids are now, when I was their age. What Ella says about the educational pipeline is important. There were times I felt almost outpaced by her team.”
Kahler elaborated on how the CRTC “downcycles” carbon fiber, often expired aerospace parts from companies such as Boeing, in a variety of new products, from athletic equipment to construction materials.
“Aluminum is slowly being phased out due to its cost and weight,” Kahler said. “The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is something like 75 percent composite materials. That’s the direction we’re headed over the next 50 years.”
Kahler described how carbon fiber is spun on looms, almost like textiles, before being baked in ovens to carbonize it.
“What comes out is far stronger than aluminum or plastic,” Kahler said. “We’ve built carbon fiber I-beams. There are endless applications, from automobiles to submarines and satellites. Basically, it works for anything that needs to carry a load. We don’t need to import anything, and it never corrodes.”
Carbon fiber’s longevity plays into what Kahler described as CRTC’s “biggest goal,” which is to divert as much material from going into landfills as possible.
“There’s no toxic inhalants, and all our waste products are reused,” Kahler said. “It never biodegrades, so once the material reaches the end of its product life, we urged our customers to send it back to us so we can recover it and use it again. The more we can reclaim, the more free raw stock we have to work with.”
Kahler echoed Ashford’s optimistic assessment that the CRTC could help create more local jobs, especially for students who aren’t necessarily looking to get a four-year degree.
“You don’t even need to have any experience in composites going into this field,” said Kahler, who reported the CRTC has 20 employees now and expects to have 40 by 2020. “This gave me a job.”