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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Climate Change - Part Due


In this post I’m going to talk a little bit about companies and industries that have taken on the challenge of reducing their carbon footprint while embracing the use of composite materials. This embrace comes in many forms, from the use of renewable materials for their composite applications to managing the carbon footprint of both their upstream and downstream (raw materials and finished products) supply chains and end products.

Starting with the use of renewable materials for composite applications, the automobile industry is taking on that challenge full steam ahead. With the advent of electric vehicles, the entire industry is beginning to understand that not only do they need to get off petroleum as their fuel source, they also need to look through their own manufacturing and servicing operations to reduce their dependence on Big Oil. An example of this is BMW which has developed a relationship with Bcomp Ltd. in Switzerland which is a company completely focused on making high performance composite materials out of natural fibers – primarily flax. We talked a bit about natural fibers a few weeks ago, so here is another example. BMW is using Bcomp materials in most of their motorsports vehicles, and have even developed frame members, drive shafts, and other very highly loaded parts.

On another side of this issue is Wimao Ltd., a Finnish clean technology company that is using mixed recyclable plastic waste to produce an environmentally friendly composite. This is a very good example of the circular economy that long has been advocated by environmentalists and some in industry as well. And by circular economy what is meant is to take the plastic component of the refuse from your typical consumer waste stream, and turning it into something useful that can be a durable end product. Using the plastic from the waste stream saves an enormous amount of energy – it has been estimated that more half of the original energy required to make the initial product can be saved. And Wimao has very ambitious goals that they have set for themselves – helping EU member states to meet their ambitious targets of recycling up to 75% of their waste streams by 2023 – that is only a year away. Wimao’s manner of doing this is to mix two different waste streams – plastic waste and wood waste – to make a natural fiber product with a recycled matrix plastic material. They say that they can also use other recycled fiber products like paper and recycled textiles to make their products. So, these are truly biocomposites.

Finally, we need to take a look at what is called “decarbonization” or taking carbon out of the industrial stream that produces CO2 and use the carbon in an industrial product. Of course, using plant based fibers is a good step in this direction, because plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into not only food, but also fiber for our use in industry. And, with the advent of plant based resins, biocomposites are net carbon negative – meaning that they sequester carbon directly from the atmosphere. But what about carbon fiber made from PAN (Poly-Acrylo-Nitrile) which is how most carbon fibers are made. There are two different ways to do this – replace the PAN, or derive the PAN from something other than petroleum. On the replace PAN side, lignin, which is the glue that holds the cellulose fibers together in plants (think trees) is a fairly viable precursor to making a suitable replacement for PAN in carbon fibers. There is quite a bit of chemistry difference, and industrial scale up of lignin-based PAN replacements have not completely come out of the lab yet, but there is considerable research going into this because lignin is so cheap and easy to get. It is part of the waste stream from the wood products industry.

On the derive a new source for PAN side, there is also considerable work being done. As it turns out, PAN is basically a long chain hydrocarbon, so starting with simple sugars that have the right number of carbons in their chain seems to be the best bet. These are non-food sugars, typically again from wood waste or even plant waste, that have 5 or 6 carbons in their carbon chains. There is again a tremendous amount of this stuff available in the wood and plant waste or biomass waste stream that could be used to make this material. There is a process being developed by Southern Research that involves hydrocracking, dehydration, and the use of ammonia and air to produce acrylonitrile. Once they have sufficient acrylonitrile, making PAN is just a polymerization reaction away from an acrylic fiber.

While these and other bio-based resin formulations are still in their infancy, the composites industry is spending enormous sums of money to develop these sustainable products because they, along with a number of other industries – automotive included – understand that their future depends on their ability to get off of the use of petroleum – and the sooner the better.

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