Developing cost-competitive biobased carbon fiber is emerging as one of the key projects of the Obama administration’s year-old Clean Energy Manufacturing Initiative. The idea is a good one: Establish an American lead in what is clearly emerging as one of the most important engineering materials of the future. Its significance was clear at K2013 in Dusseldorf when two large machine producers (Engel & KraussMaffei–see my Best of the K) demonstrated CFRP composite molding in large cells.
American auto producers are avoiding use of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) on production vehicles because of its high cost. It holds significant promise to replace steel in weight-saving car frames if costs can be brought closer in line with traditional materials. Mavens are confident that costs of carbon fiber will drop significantly.
The Energy Department yesterday announced funding of up to $11.3 million for two specific projects that seek to demonstrate new biomass conversion technologies that enable the manufacturing of acrylonitrile, the essential feedstock for high performance carbon fiber, for less than $1 per pound.
Southern Research Institute (SRI) of Birmingham, Alabama will receive up to $5.9 million to develop a multi-step catalytic process for conversion of sugars from non-food biomass to acrylonitrile. National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of Golden, Colorado will receive up to $5.3 million to explore multiple pathways to bio-acrylontrile.
The cost of polymerized acrylonitrile (PAN), which is now made from petroleum, can contribute up to 50 percent of the manufactured cost of carbon fiber