NREL researchers making carbon fiber from biomass a reality

November 15, 2018 |

In Colorado, taking a page from history, National Renewable Energy Laboratory researchers successfully produced 50 grams of bio-derived acrylonitrile (CAN). That capped the first phase of a DOE-funded program. The second phase, now underway, calls for the production of 50 kilograms of ACN that will be converted into carbon fiber and tested.

The nitrilation process, published in the journal Science near the end of last year, produced a 98% yield of ACN. The yield from the petroleum-based method ranges from 80%-83%. With that result, at DOE’s suggestion, NREL shelved research into the three remaining ideas.

As members of the Renewable Carbon Fiber Consortium, Cargill and other companies will play vital roles in furthering the research. A West Virginia nonprofit research institute, MATRIC, will convert Cargill’s 3-HP into ACN. Then a Portuguese company will produce the carbon fiber and hand it off to Ford Motor Company. The car manufacturer will fashion the carbon fiber into parts and compare the biomass-derived versions against those made through the traditional process.

Whether the NREL process for biomass-derived ACN ultimately catches on will depend on the strength and properties of the resulting carbon fiber and how that compares to the tried-and-true method.

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