Carbon-fibre reinforced plastic is light, strong and fashionable, and a great way to make a car a faster or more fuel efficient. Unfortunately, it's also hugely expensive, which means it's largely restricted to vehicles with big sticker prices or designed specifically for racing.
Part of the reason carbon-fibre is expensive comes from its manufacturing process. Most commercial carbon-fibre is made from polyacrylonitrile, which today is made from oil, ammonia, oxygen and an expensive catalyst.
Not only does this method mean carbon-fibre is subject to the wildly variable price of oil, but the current production process also creates lots of waste heat and some toxic chemicals.
Above: Acrylonitrile reactor at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory via Nexus Media.
Gregg Beckham and his team at the US' National Renewable Energy Laboratory have successfully created acrylonitrile from plant products, such as corn stalks and wheat straw, which typically go to waste.
According to a study recently published in Science magazine, the researchers broke the plant products down into sugars, and converted them into an acid. When combined with an inexpensive catalyst, they were able to produce acrylonitrile without any waste heat and no toxic byproducts.
The team are currently working with external companies to scale the production process up to commercial quantities, and hope to begin testing automotive-grade carbon-fibre made from their new method in the near future.
Beckham told Nexus Media: “We’ll be doing more fundamental research. Beyond scaling acrylonitrile production, we are also excited about using this powerful, robust chemistry to make other everyday materials.”
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