Development of Processes for the Low-cost Production of Carbon Fiber Materials from Renewable Resources
Lignin is a natural, renewable resource material that is used to produce products for many commercial applications, but it also has potential for wider scale use in new applications with environmental benefits. A major research project underway in the Carbon Materials Technology Group is directed towards the utilization of lignin as a precursor material for production of carbon fibers. The primary objective is to develop more energy-efficient, cost-effective processes for production of carbon fibers for use in composite materials for vehicles, which would substantially reduce vehicle weight, decrease fuel consumption, and result in lower CO2 emissions. Body-in-White modeling indicates that over 60% of the steel in a vehicle could be replaced with carbon fiber without impacting vehicle crash worthiness. However, carbon fiber is currently too expensive for large scale automotive use, which necessitates a large reduction in cost to about $10/kg. All aspects of carbon fiber production and use are being addressed in the research, including isolation of lignin from biomass, spinning it into precursor fiber, thermal processing into carbon fiber using advanced techniques (e.g., microwave-assisted plasma), and production and crash worthiness testing of composite automotive parts. In addition, lignin-based nanoporous (activated) carbon fibers are being produced and evaluated for other environment-related applications, including VOC and CO2 capture.