Scientists Are Making Carbon Fiber From Plants Instead of Petroleum
Carbon fiber is the Superman of materials. Five times stronger than steel and a fraction of the weight, it is used in everything from tennis rackets to golf clubs to bicycles to wind turbine blades to passenger airplanes to Formula One race cars. There's just one catch: Carbon fiber is made from oil and other costly ingredients, making the end product exceptionally expensive. That's why carbon fiber shows up in race cars but rarely makes it into minivans.
That could change. Scientists say it may soon be possible to make carbon fiber from plants instead of petroleum, driving down costs, making the material more widely available for use in cars, planes and other vehicles.
Carbon fiber is made from a chemical called acrylonitrile. Currently, producers make acrylonitrile from oil, ammonia, oxygen and an expensive catalyst. The process produces a lot of heat and yields a toxic byproduct. And, because acrylonitrile is made from petroleum, the cost of carbon fiber tends to rise and fall with the price of oil.
A race car with a carbon fiber body. Rhots
"Acrylonitrile prices have witnessed large fluctuations in the past, which has in turn led to lower adoption rates for carbon fibers for making cars and planes lighter weight," said Gregg Beckham, a group leader at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and coauthor of a recent paper detailing this research. "If you can stabilize the acrylonitrile price by providing a new feedstock from which to make acrylonitrile," he said, adding, "we might be able to make carbon fiber cheaper."
Beckham and a team of researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory developed a new process for producing acrylonitrile that makes use of plants, namely the parts people can't eat, such as corn stalks and wheat straw. Scientists broke these materials down into sugars, which were converted into an acid and combined with an inexpensive catalyst to produce acrlyonitrile. The process generated no excess heat and returned no toxic byproducts.
Scientists combined the raw ingredients needed to make acrlyonitrile in this reactor. Dennis Schroeder / National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Scientists believe the plant-based process could be scaled up and used in manufacturing. Researchers are now working with several firms to produce a large quantity of acrylonitrile that will be turned into carbon fiber and tested for use in automobiles. By making carbon fiber cheaper, scientists could help car owners save money in the long run. Cars made with carbon fiber are lighter than those made with steel. As a result, they need less fuel to cover the same distance, helping drivers save on gas while also cutting planet-warming carbon pollution.
There's a trend underway of scientists making petroleum products from plants instead. Petroleum is, after all, made from prehistoric plants that were buried and subjected to intense heat and pressure for millions of years. Researchers are trying to cut out the middleman—deriving needed chemicals directly from plants, reducing our dependence on oil.
"We'll be doing more fundamental research," Beckham said. "Beyond scaling acrylonitrile production, we are also excited about using this powerful, robust chemistry to make other everyday materials."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
- Redwoods are the world's tallest trees.
- Now scientists have discovered they are even bigger than we thought.
- Using laser technology they map the 80-meter giants.
- Trees are a key plank in the fight against climate change.
They are among the largest trees in the world, descendants of forests where dinosaurs roamed.
Pixabay / Simi Luft<p><span>Until recently, measuring these trees meant scaling their 80 meter high trunks with a tape measure. Now, a team of scientists from University College London and the University of Maryland uses advanced laser scanning, to create 3D maps and calculate the total mass.</span></p><p>The results are striking: suggesting the trees <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73733-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">may be as much as 30% larger than earlier measurements suggested.</a> Part of that could be due to the additional trunks the Redwoods can grow as they age, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73733-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a process known as reiteration</a>.</p>
New 3D measurements of large redwood trees for biomass and structure. Nature / UCL<p>Measuring the trees more accurately is important because carbon capture will probably play a key role in the battle against climate change. Forest <a href="https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/09/carbon-sequestration-natural-forest-regrowth" target="_blank">growth could absorb billions of tons</a> of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year.</p><p>"The importance of big trees is widely-recognised in terms of carbon storage, demographics and impact on their surrounding ecosystems," the authors wrote<a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73733-6" target="_blank"> in the journal Nature</a>. "Unfortunately the importance of big trees is in direct proportion to the difficulty of measuring them."</p><p>Redwoods are so long lived because of their ability to <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73733-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cope with climate change, resist disease and even survive fire damage</a>, the scientists say. Almost a fifth of their volume may be bark, which helps protect them.</p>
Carbon Capture Champions<p><span>Earlier research by scientists at Humboldt University and the University of Washington found that </span><a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378112716302584" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Redwood forests store almost 2,600 tonnes of carbon per hectare</a><span>, their bark alone containing more carbon than any other neighboring species.</span></p><p>While the importance of trees in fighting climate change is widely accepted, not all species enjoy the same protection as California's coastal Redwoods. In 2019 the world lost the equivalent of <a href="https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/deforestation-and-forest-degradation" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30 soccer fields of forest cover every minute</a>, due to agricultural expansion, logging and fires, according to The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF).</p>
Pixabay<p>Although <a href="https://c402277.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com/publications/1420/files/original/Deforestation_fronts_-_drivers_and_responses_in_a_changing_world_-_full_report_%281%29.pdf?1610810475" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the rate of loss is reported to have slowed in recent years</a>, reforesting the world to help stem climate change is a massive task.</p><p><span>That's why the World Economic Forum launched the Trillion Trees Challenge (</span><a href="https://www.1t.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">1t.org</a><span>) and is engaging organizations and individuals across the globe through its </span><a href="https://uplink.weforum.org/uplink/s/uplink-issue/a002o00000vOf09AAC/trillion-trees" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Uplink innovation crowdsourcing platform</a><span> to support the project.</span></p><p>That's backed up by research led by ETH Zurich/Crowther Lab showing there's potential to restore tree coverage across 2.2 billion acres of degraded land.</p><p>"Forests are critical to the health of the planet," according to <a href="https://www.1t.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">1t.org</a>. "They sequester carbon, regulate global temperatures and freshwater flows, recharge groundwater, anchor fertile soil and act as flood barriers."</p><p><em data-redactor-tag="em" data-verified="redactor">Reposted with permission from the </em><span><em data-redactor-tag="em" data-verified="redactor"><a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/03/redwoods-store-more-co2-and-are-more-enormous-than-we-thought/" target="_blank">World Economic Forum</a>.</em></span></p>
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