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."