Researchers may soon be able to produce a cost-effective and more environmentally friendly carbon fiber based on plants.

Currently, carbon fiber is made from petroleum products. It is high strength and lightweight, and used in high-performance cars to help reduce weight and improve handling. Its value is known with more expected to be incorporated in cars, and other vehicles, but, there are issues with it as well.

For one, the petroleum aspect of the manufacturing process makes carbon fiber expensive. While it is now common to find the material in supercars, it’s less-common in everyday vehicles. The BMW i3 makes extensive use of it, but most other vehicles that use it only have it in select areas.

Carbon fiber is made from acrylonitrile, which is made of oil, ammonia, oxygen and an expensive catalyst. The heating in the production process creates a toxic byproduct. Since petroleum is involved, the price of carbon fiber tends to fluctuate with the price of oil.

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Gregg Beckham, group leader at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is working on a new feedstock for the acrylonitrile. 

“If you can stabilize the acrylonitrile price by providing a new feedstock from which to make acrylonitrile, we might be able to make carbon fiber cheaper,” he said.

That new feedstock uses plants. Parts of the plants that people don’t consume, such as corn stalks, are broken down into sugars. They’re then converted into an acid and combined with a catalyst to produce the acrylonitrile. No toxic byproducts were made in the process.

The process isn’t currently scaled enough for automobile product, but scientists are working it on. Readily-available, inexpensive carbon fiber would make it easier for automakers to incorporate it into future vehicles. Those weight savings would benefit everything from the latest performance car to battery-electric vehicles that’ll soon be taking the automotive stage.

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