Energy efficient carbon fiber production

Scientists at North Carolina State University in the US are researching how to improve the energy efficiency of the carbon fiber process.

The research involves adding two biologically derived chemicals found in certain fruits - glucaric acid and mucic acid – into a precursor material for carbon fiber. Scientists found with the addition of the two chemicals, starting the chemical conversion process of making carbon fiber required less energy.

“There is an increasing demand for carbon fiber, and when it comes to low-cost fiber, one of the leading applications is for use as a structural material in vehicles,” said Ericka Ford, assistant professor of textile engineering, chemistry and science at the university. “In this study, we found that by adding the two chemicals into the precursor material, we can potentially reduce the amount of energy required to complete one stage of the manufacturing process for carbon fiber, and help bring down some of the cost.”

The researchers used computer modeling to preview what would happen when they added the two chemical compounds to the precursor material. Their interest in the chemicals was initially piqued after glucaric acid was listed by the US Department of Energy as a chemical of industrial significance. They then tested making the polyacrylonitrile (PAN) precursor material. According to the university, the additives decreased the energy required to start the chemical process of making the carbon structure from PAN five-fold. Researchers say that could also reduce the overall cost of that step of the manufacturing process by making the reaction faster.

According to Ford, the researchers plan to look at other natural products that they could add to PAN fibers to “influence their usefulness for conversion into carbon fiber.”