NREL eyes renewable acrylonitrile for cheaper carbon fiber

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In Colorado, researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are exploring low-cost, plant-based routes to carbon fiber—a strong, lightweight but pricey material whose use is currently limited to high-performance cars.

Carbon fiber is produced from petroleum-based acrylonitrile, which is made from oil, ammonia, oxygen, and an expensive catalyst. The process also results in a toxic byproduct.

NREL’s Gregg Beckham is targeting a renewable route to acrylonitrile that could also lower the cost of production and expand the vehicles employing the material.

“If you can stabilize the acrylonitrile price by providing a new feedstock from which to make acrylonitrile, we might be able to make carbon fiber cheaper,” he tells hybridcars.com. The process converts sugar from feedstocks such as corn stalks into acid, which is then combined with a catalyst to produce acrylonitrile with no toxic byproducts, according to the site.