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Greenville Business Magazine

Carbon Fiber: Strands of Time

Aug 01, 2017 03:02PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By John Jeter

Carol Smallwood met the man who would be her husband while she was repairing helicopters for the U.S. Navy. Ten years ago, she and Gayland, a retired naval commander, moved to Greenville. These days, she works for the very company that makes the stuff that keeps Gayland aloft in the Bell 407 helicopter he flies.

“Isn’t that cool?” Smallwood says with a big grin in a small conference room at the massive Solvay carbon fiber and specialty polymers plant at the South Carolina Technology & Aviation Center. 

Smallwood has been at Solvay for more than five years and today serves as senior executive assistant to the company’s vice president of global operations, David Snyder. Though Snyder is based in Greenville, he’s responsible for 20 of the Belgian company’s 139 industrial sites in 58 countries. And Smallwood is one of more than 350 employees at Solvay’s Piedmont plant, which manufactures miles of chemically made filaments for innumerable applications. 

The strands are high-tech descendants of textiles, the Upstate’s onetime economic powerhouse. “A lot of the terminology we use in carbon fiber,” Snyder says, “comes from the textile industry.”

Each thread, smaller than a human hair, is made into yarns of 3,000 or 6,000 filaments. Solvay’s Greenville-made products go into satellites, medical devices, cars, and airplanes; 90 percent of output here winds up in aerospace.

“Every single Boeing aircraft, in one form or another, uses carbon fiber from this facility, from a 737 to a 757 to a Triple 7,” Snyder says. “We’re the major supplier of carbon fiber composite materials to Boeing.” 

Likewise, he adds, “Carbon fiber can sustain very high temperatures, even on a military fighter jet, where engine exhaust would be even hotter” than on a commercial airplane. “Essentially every U.S. military aircraft uses our product, including the latest aircraft like the F-35 fighter jet.” (Lockheed happens to be a half-mile away from Solvay Specialty Polymers.)

Snyder, 54, moved to Greenville with his family in the mid-2000s. In 2010, he became a VP of the company that reported 2016 net sales of €10.9 billion, or about $12.1 billion. Of that, 28 percent came from the aerospace and automotive markets.

That’s a lot of high-tech yarn.

During a tour of one of Solvay’s multiple facilities, which opened in 1965 under Union Carbide Corp., 56-year-old plant manager John Vidalis takes a visitor through the highly technical process. Acrylonitrile and dimethyl sulfoxide—a solution used to ease inflammation in horses—are turned into strands of gold; the conduit moving these potions from a huge cask, which looks and smells like one at a brewery, bears a green sign: “The Money Pipe.”

“That’s where the money is,” the New York native quips before entering the factory where a clear mixture is pushed through precisely drilled holes of platinum and gold. Out come strands that are heated, cooled, and stretched, until winding up in five-pound spools.

If you unraveled one spool and dangled the yarn from an aircraft at a cruising altitude of 38,700 feet, the end would touch the ground. That’s after a two-hour process running the length of a long par five.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure that makes this little spool,” says Brian Huggins, 42, area leader and Georgia Tech chemical-engineer grad.

The spools get shipped everywhere, the yarn’s used everywhere. Much of what’s shipped out of Greenville is woven into composite materials that, in lots of applications, use proprietary resins to make highly durable, lightweight sheets—again, a bit like something out of textiles.

Like everyone else you talk to at Solvay—where you enter to speed limit signs that read 197/8 mph before having to watch a 15-minute safety video—Huggins embraces the company and Greenville.

“With the expansion and growth here, this is what brought me to Solvay,” he says.

Snyder, who has an engineering degree from Drexel University in his native Philadelphia, speaks wistfully of his adoptive hometown, its cultural amenities, Greenville’s welcoming mien, and, of course, the weather.  He also lauds his employees.

“The workforce here is very community-minded,” he says. “They have a great sense of teamwork, readily aligned with what’s important to our customers. I know a lot of that sounds boilerplate, but I operate a number of facilities in the States and globally, and I had a choice to locate myself. I enjoy my time working with the team here, as well as living here.

“We’re proud of the facility,” he adds. “We’re kind of a quiet, but significant, member of the community here.”