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Bio-Based Carbon Fiber: An Exciting New Product, But There's Work to Do

September 29, 2016 — Carbon fiber, also known as graphite fiber, is a lightweight, strong, and flexible material used in both structural applications (load-bearing) and non-structural applications (e.g., thermal insulation). Currently made from fossil fuel sources such as polyacrylonitrile (PAN), carbon fiber is used to manufacture products that span from tennis rackets, to sports cars, to airplanes. The high cost of precursor materials and manufacturing, however, have kept carbon fiber in a niche market for applications that are mostly limited to high-performance structural products.

Graph displaying carbon fiber properties from various precursors in gray and black, compared to industry requirements in red.

Sources: Lin et al. 2013; Downing 2013; Dumanli and Windle 2012

Carbon fiber properties from various precursors (in gray/black) compared to industry requirements (in red). PAN and pitch are fossil-based carbon fiber precursors. Lignin and rayon are two biomass-based carbon fiber examples here and fall outside of the requirements for structural applications. Scientists are targeting carbon fiber from lignocellulosic sugars as functionally-equivalent material to PAN-based carbon fiber, and if developed, it would replace PAN-based carbon fiber in many relevant applications. Information on glycerol-based carbon fiber properties is not available at this time.

Over the last several years, researchers and industry groups have been investigating alternative precursors that reduce carbon fiber cost and dependence on fossil fuel sources. Such biomass-derived precursors include rayon, lignin, glycerol, and lignocellulosic sugars. In a new CEMAC study, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO), analysts provide a comprehensive overview of carbon fiber precursors made from biomass—and the market potential of these materials.

CEMAC examined the potential carbon fiber production from biomass precursors, the state of technology and applications, and the production cost. The study discussed their advantages and limitations, manufacturing and end-product considerations for bio-based carbon fiber, as well as considerations for plant siting and biomass feedstock logistics, feedstock competition, and risk mitigation strategies. The study also points out that currently, scientists are working to develop bio-based carbon fiber from lignocellulosic sugars to serve as a functionally-equivalent material to fossil-based carbon fiber. Produced from sugar, this alternative material could also be a new cost-competitive material for manufacturing clean technologies.

At this time, however, CEMAC found that no biomass-based carbon fiber has been developed with the necessary structural properties for major carbon fiber applications like aerospace, wind, and automotive applications. As more research, development, and techno-economic analyses can identify the future market viability of these biogenic carbon fiber pathways, CEMAC plans to continue monitoring material performance and manufacturing developments of this exciting, new material.

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