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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Plant or Biomass Derived Carbon Fiber (PAN-Based)

This week I am going to focus on just one aspect of sustainability of composites – plant or biomass based carbon fiber. And, I am going to quote rather extensively out of an article in Composites world that I mentioned a little over a month ago. That article is specifically about the scaling up of Acrylonitrile, the main precursor for most carbon fiber production, from a biomass feedstock rather than petroleum.

The fact that this precursor is scaling up is extremely good news for the composites industry, and for the planet as well, since it only uses a naturally occurring and sustainable resource, plant waste or biomass.

Southern Research in Birmingham, Alabama has developed a process for converting non-food sugars derived from wood waste biomass into Acrylonitrile, using a thermochemical process that has a much lower CO2 footprint than the current process that uses propylene (from petroleum) and ammonia to make Acrylonitrile, which is then polymerized into Polyacrylonitrile or PAN.

The Southern Research process converts two wood waste derived sugars – xylose and glucose (C5 and C6) – to Acrylonitrile using a catalytically driven thermal process that goes through several steps before resulting in Acrylonitrile. And the by-products of this process can mostly be used in other industries for other chemical processes to create other products. So, the waste stream is minimized, and there are much less toxic by-products than are created by the petroleum based process for making ACN.

As you can see in the first pic in this post, Southern Research has built a small scale production facility (funded by the DOE) that will demonstrate the scalability of their process. This facility will be used as a demonstration pilot plant for their process.

Apparently the cost of the ACN that is produced in this manner can run from $0.60-$0.98 per pound, based on the quality of the biomass sugars that they are able to source on the open market. And using the “good” quality sugars that are available for making this biomass based ACN provides a cost of about $0.72 a pound, compared to $0.85 a pound for the petroleum based ACN. So, already the biomass based ACN is cheaper to make than the petroleum based product. And, the prices of the two precursor materials – biomass sugars and petroleum are going in different directions. The price of oil is going to be going up in the future as we start to run low on what we can extract inexpensively, whereas the price of biomass sugars is going to come down because now that the forest products industry sees a market for their refuse material, they will produce more of the precursor sugars, causing the prices to go down over time. There will always be waste material from the forest products industry, since that is the renewable resource that is used as building material for housing for most of humanity.

I want to stay on that subject for a little bit, because it is not just the biomass based sugars that are valuable by-products of forest waste, it is also lignin and pitch, both of which are valuable commodities in the natural fiber and resin business for composites. Now it seems that another by-product of the forest biomass waste can be used in the composites industry, the sugars needed to make Acrylonitrile.

This of course leads to a future of sustainable engineered materials, which is the direction that we need to head in order to sustain our standard of living. And that is the point that I have been leading up to for this entire post. Sustainable engineered materials like composites are on the horizon and we need to not only applaud the researchers that come up with processes like are described in this post, we need to encourage Governments to fund this research to move it into production and eventually take over from the current petroleum based engineered materials precursors.

I’ll get off my soap box now and talk a little bit about my book. I heard again from the publisher, this time only to make sure that one of the figures that I had in the book had the right caption and was the way I wanted it. It was a figure from a project I had a few years back that developed non-destructive examination calibration blocks for carbon fiber composites. It was for the Air Force, because they wanted some sort of standard calibration block with known flaws that they could use to calibrate their instruments – mostly acoustic, but I also developed the same standard block for thermographic and radiographic image calibration. It never went anywhere because I talked to the aircraft maintainers, and they didn’t trust anything but what they had which was small pieces of delaminated composites taken from aircraft like the A-10 – usually in the wing root where most of the fatigue delamination happens.

Anyway, what all of that means is that the book was going through the last check before going to the printer to get printed. So, if things go as I hope, they can get the first run done in a week or two and I should be able to announce the book coming out very soon.

This is pretty exciting for me, so I hope you understand why I talk about it so much. I’ve never done this before, so it is quite new.

One more thing, once the book is announced and I have copies of it, I will be adding a QR code to this newsletter that will take you directly to the website where you can buy a signed copy right from I’m going to buy enough extra copies that I will have some for sale here at home.

See you all next week.


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