Texas A&M researchers turn lignin into carbon fiber
Separated materials of a tree. Lignin shown in tube 3rd from the left.
Carbon fiber is a material valued for its combination of lightness, durability, and strength.
It’s used in many different things from cars to airplane engine components to, apparently, toilets. Earlier this year, researchers from Texas A&M University discovered a way to make good, quality carbon fiber from lignin, a common waste product from the pulp and paper industry.
Lignin is found in plants and considered to be the glue that holds the plant together and gives it structure. During the paper manufacturing process the lignin is removed, and the industry has had trouble figuring out what to do with the leftover waste.
Dr. Joshua Yuan is Texas A&M’s AgriLife Research scientist and associate professor of plant pathology and microbiology in College Station. He says that around 50 million tons of lignin waste comes from the pulp and paper industry each year, and up to 200 million more tons come from the biorefineries that turn plants into ethanol. Even so, only 2% of the lignin produced is recycled into something else.
This isn’t for lack of trying. There have been difficulties with efficiently turning lignin into biofuel, though a host of companies are trying. Nor so far has there been much success breaking its components down, which researchers say “would unlock the door to a range of valuable chemicals.” Though most who work with lignin may agree that there are likely much better uses for it, much of the lignin waste is simply burned for energy.
Finding a way to turn lignin into carbon fiber is a huge accomplishment.
“People have been thinking about using lignin to make carbon fiber for many years, but achieving good quality has been an issue,” Yuan said.
Yuan and his team at Texas A&M accomplished the transformation by more closely examining lignin. They discovered that lignin is not a uniform substance; it’s made of “a mixture of many molecules of many sizes and different chemical properties.” Through a process called fractionation, they separated the lignin into parts and discovered that certain parts, ones that were more molecularly dense and heavy, would be great for carbon fiber.
“We are still improving and fine-tuning the quality, but eventually this carbon fiber could be used for windmills, sport materials and even bicycles and cars,” said Yuan. “Carbon fiber is much lighter but has the same mechanical strength as other materials used for those products now. This material can be used for a lot of different applications.” Carbon fiber is normally expensive to produce, and the amount of lignin produced each year may make production of carbon fiber easier.
There’s also a use for the lighter parts of lignin too. According to Yuan it can be used for bioplastics, and things such as asphalt binder modifier, a substance used to increase the durability of asphalt on roads.
“The beauty of this technology is that it allows us to use lignin completely.”
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