Using Pollution to Create Carbon Fiber
‘Pollution’ is a word we normally associate with bad things, is it not? Of course it is. We are constantly talking about fighting pollution by reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other emissions we release into the air. But what if we could turn pollution into a good thing? Would our fight against it look any different?
The premise for this post is a November 19 (2018) article published by Composites World magazine. The article, written by contributor Scott Francis, discusses a project currently being worked on in Germany. The project is looking at the possibility of using algae oil to produce PAN, one of the primary raw materials used to make carbon fiber.
What you need to know about algae oil is that it is a byproduct of pollution. Public and private sector entities the world over are using it to help combat emissions. Now, thanks to some very smart researchers in Munich, it appears possible to take algae oil and manipulate it to create polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fibers. Those fibers are then processed to create carbon fibers.
How Algae Oil Works
Algae oil is produced when certain kinds of algae are used to naturally scrub the atmosphere of CO2. In essence, the algae acts as an air filter. Trapping the CO2 causes a reaction that creates an oily substance excreted by the algae. That oily substance can actually be burned straight up as a fuel.
Though not as efficient as other fuels, algae oil does well enough as a biofuel to be considered a replacement for fossil fuels in some cases. But enough of that. We’re more interested in how algae oil can be harnessed to create carbon fiber.
According to Composites World, the German researchers have come up with a process by which they char the algae oil with parabolic solar reflectors. In so doing, the algae yields natural carbon fibers. These naturally-produced carbon fibers are no different, structurally, than more traditional fibers produced in a laboratory setting.
Two for the Price of One
Researchers still have a long way to go to perfect their process and bring it to market. They may never actually get to market, either. But let’s assume they do. What they are offering is a lot like a ‘two for the price of one’ deal.
Turning algae oil into carbon fibers start with removing CO2 from the air. Researchers say that their system is extremely scalable, meaning they think large-scale plants covering wide swaths of land are very feasible. The plants would scrub large volumes of air, producing algae oil in their wake.
The first benefit of the plan results in cleaner air all the way around. The second benefit kicks in when algae oil is shipped to carbon fiber manufacturers who then process it using solar energy. They produce larger volumes of carbon fibers at a fraction of the cost. This ultimately results in an influx of supply that should subsequently bring carbon fiber prices down.
Good for the Industry
Rock West Composites, a Salt Lake City company that specializes in carbon fiber and other composite materials, says that success by the German researchers would ultimately be good for the composites industry. Anything that can bring the cost of carbon fiber down enough to make it extremely competitive against steel and aluminum would boost the industry quite a bit.
It is theoretically possible to turn pollution into carbon fiber. The only question remaining is one of whether it can be done cost effectively or not. We will have to wait and see what comes out of Germany.