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Making Carbon Fiber Renewable - Text Version

Below is the text version for the video Making Carbon Fiber Renewable.

Eric Karp, Chemical Engineer, National Renewable Energy Laboratory: So, one of the big goals, I think, for our country, in general, is to incorporate carbon fiber in more products, especially in terms of fuel efficiency, for cars and aircraft.

But carbon fiber today is too expensive...it's also produced from acrylonitrile, which comes from a petroleum process, which releases a lot of greenhouse gases in that entire value chain.

So, when you look at the greenhouse gas offsets from a car produced from carbon fiber it actually doesn't make a lot of sense.

However, if you could find a greener route to the base chemical to still make that carbon fiber product you could start light-weighting cars and this would make a lot of sense from an environmental perspective.

Gregg Bechham, Senior Research Fellow, National Renewable Energy Laboratory: The challenge we set out to solve with nitrilation was to produce a bio-based acrylonitrile. Acrylonitrile is used in many everyday products and produced at the tune of 7 billion kilograms per year, which is about 1 kilogram per person on the planet per year of this major commodity chemical.

Eric: So, what we did, is we kind of looked at it from a different perspective. We took an entirely different approach.

We didn't use the petrochemical Sohio process that had been developed; we took an older chemistry, from the early 1900s, that's not really reported much and we kind of married that up with a renewable feedstock that ended up yielding much better results than trying to put it through a traditional process that was meant for something else.

Gregg: The nitrilation process is exciting relative to the petroleum-based process for several reasons. One, it takes a bio-derived renewable feedstock...it's much easier to control from a process-safety perspective...the catalysts are about three times cheaper, the yield is higher, and it doesn't produce toxic byproducts, such as hydrogen, cyanid, or acrolein, like the petroleum-based process.

Eric: This is much cleaner and easier for operators to handle and you don't have explosion hazards or toxicity hazards associated with it.

If you've got two different sources now to the same product and it's identical, in terms of its chemical performance, that really reduces the volatility in the market. Now, you're not completely dependent on propylene prices, you can use sugar or lignin or other renewable feedstocks, which are waste feedstocks and sometimes those are cost-negative so, this really stabilizes the price point and gives manufacturers a much better cost prediction model on what you can expect carbon fiber to cost every single year.