Carbon fiber composite technology is a wonderful engineering tool for lowering the weight of vehicles and reducing their fuel consumption. It would be a perfectly green alternative to steel and aluminum if it were not for the fact that producing carbon fiber requires fossil materials and a lot of energy. A breakthrough technology from the Technical University of Munich in Germany promises to turn that on its head. The method not only makes it possible to produce carbon fiber without any fossil materials, it even takes CO2 out of the atmosphere instead of emitting it. The key to the technology: algae and direct solar power.
Professor Thomas Brück of the Technical University of Munich is specialized in using algae to produce worthwhile products like bio-fuels (See Fig. 1). He only uses natural, non-genetically modified strains in his research. How did he come up with the idea to use algae to produce carbon fiber? “We had talks with the carbon fiber producing and processing industry, especially Airbus who were carefully looking at their products from a life cycle perspective,” he answers. “Carbon fiber is very popular in aircraft production as a replacement for metals, but that does raise some issues in terms of cost and sustainability. Carbon fiber is mainly produced from fossil materials. And the processing temperatures are around 3000 degrees Celsius, which translates into high energy consumption for production and a correspondingly high price. For mass application we will have to cut cost and improve sustainability, which is very important in aviation. Not just bio-fuels can contribute to sustainability, but also the aircraft skin.”