WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The knock on impact of being able to produce cheap carbon fiber at scale could help us create stronger, lighter drones, prosthetics and robots, as well as improve the fuel economy of all manner of vehicles, from aircraft to cars.
Carbon fiber is the superman of materials. Five times stronger than steel and a fraction of the weight it’s used in everything from aircraft and bikes, to racing cars, rackets, and wind turbines. But there’s a catch, a big one. It’s made from oil and other costly ingredients so it’s incredibly expensive to produce, which is why it only shows up in high end gear.
However, thanks to a team from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) led by Gregg Beckham, that could all soon change and we might soon see the day when all Carbon fiber is made from plants instead of petroleum, which will drive down its cost and, undoubtedly help push it more into the main stream.
Carbon fiber is made from a chemical called Acrylonitrile and today producers make Acrylonitrile from oil, Ammonia, Oxygen and an expensive catalyst, the process also produces a lot of excess heat and yields a toxic by product. And, because Acrylonitrile is made from petroleum, the cost of Carbon fiber inevitably rises and falls in line with the oil prices, something else that isn’t good if you want to use it for mainstream products.
“Acrylonitrile prices have witnessed large fluctuations in the past, which has in turn led to lower adoption rates for carbon fibers for making cars and planes lighter weight,” said Beckham, “if you can stabilise the Acrylonitrile price by providing a new feedstock from which to make Acrylonitrile we can make carbon fiber cheaper.”
Beckham and his team developed their new process for producing Acrylonitrile using the parts of plants people don’t eat, such as corn stalks and wheat straw. They broke these materials down into sugars, which were converted into an acid and combined with an inexpensive catalyst to produce Acrlyonitrile, and, furthermore, as an added bonus, the process generated no excess heat and returned no toxic by products.
The team believe their new plant based process can be scaled up economically and they’re now working with several firms to produce large quantities that they can turn into Carbon fiber and tested for use in the construction of cars where the materials light weight and tremendous strength could make cars, whether it’s today’s combustion powered cars, or tomorrow’s electric vehicles, even more economical to drive and reduce their impact on the environment.
There’s also a trend underway by scientists around the world to make petroleum products from plants instead, which when you think about it makes sense – after all, oil is made from prehistoric plants that were buried and subjected to intense heat and pressure for millions of years, and now scientists are trying to cut out the middlemen.
“We’ll be doing more fundamental research in this area,” said Beckham, “beyond scaling Acrylonitrile production, we are also excited about using this powerful, robust chemistry to make other everyday materials.”