Southern Research Inst. receives DOE award to advance low cost carbon fiber from biomass

Team member Cytec Carbon Fibers LLC will validate the bio-based acrylonitrile precursor.

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The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE, Washington, D.C.) has announced that Southern Research Institute (Birmingham, Ala.) has been selected for an award of up to $5.9 million to advance production of high performance, low cost carbon fibers from biomass.  The DOE award will fund development of a multi-step catalytic process for conversion of sugars from non-food biomass to acrylonitrile – a key precursor in the production of carbon fiber.  Industrial demand for carbon fiber continues to grow due to its high strength and light weight in a number of fields including defense, space, aviation, automotive, wind turbine production, and sporting goods manufacturing.  At its Durham, North Carolina facility, Southern Research Institute is exploring novel methods of producing acrylonitrile and other bio-based chemicals and fuels using renewable, non-food-based biomass feedstocks.

“Carbon fiber is a strong, lightweight material that can replace steel and other heavier metals.  Current production methods have limited its use, but by leveraging these renewable sources, we may be able to broaden its use, potentially improving performance of fuel-efficient vehicles and renewable energy components such as wind turbine blades,” said Michael D. Johns, Vice President of Engineering for Southern Research Institute.

“At Southern Research we have developed an innovative, elegant process concept, which utilizes biomass derived sugars from any source, allowing for the use of a variety of biomass feedstocks, to produce acrylonitrile.  This process could not only potentially improve economics, but may also improve the overall environmental footprint of carbon fiber production when compared to traditional manufacturing methods,” said Dr. Amit Goyal, Senior Chemical Engineer and Principal Investigator for Southern Research Institute.

Team members included in Southern Research Institute’s original application to DOE are Cytec Carbon Fibers LLC (Piedmont, S.C.) and New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT, Newark, N.J.). The bio-based acrylonitrile produced by Southern Research Institute’s process will be validated by Cytec (West Patterson, N.J.), a major carbon fiber manufacturer, and compared with petroleum-based acrylonitrile as a potential direct substitute. NJIT will assist with catalyst characterization for optimizing catalyst performance. Billy Harmon, Director, Research and Development for Cytec Carbon Fibers, adds “Cytec is very excited about the importance of this research and our ability to be a trusted and valued partner in the development of the next dimension of carbon fiber technology.”

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