When it comes to materials with the most promise in automotive applications, carbon fiber and graphene each rank high on the list.
Unlike graphene, however, real-world carbon fiber applications exist today—and they're helping automakers reduce the weight of cars coming tomorrow.
There's one big, unfortunate, and somewhat ironic problem with carbon fiber, though: You need to use oil to make it.
That's where a team of researchers from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory comes in.
According to Popular Science, the team has developed a way to manufacture carbon fiber using plant material, specifically the parts of food plants we don't eat and usually toss out, such as corn stalks.
In the current process for manufacturing carbon fiber, the oil is needed to make a compound called acrylonitrile, which is then further refined and combined with other materials.
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Since oil is a main ingredient in the process, the costs to manufacture carbon fiber can fluctuate with the cost of oil.
Not only that, the process currently employed to make acrylonitrile produces a fairly toxic byproduct.
To get around this dirty process, researchers are hoping to produce acrylonitrile—and carbon fiber—directly from plant material in bulk.
The result of the research could provide cheaper carbon fiber for more pedestrian vehicles, meaning your next subcompact could shed some steel for carbon fiber but perhaps cost no more than it does today.
The process identified by researchers is also said to have no toxic byproducts, making for a more environmentally friendly material.
The team has considerable work ahead of it, though, mainly in developing a manufacturing process that can be commercialized in high volume.
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“We’ll be doing more fundamental research,” said Gregg Beckham, group leader at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
“Beyond scaling acrylonitrile production, we are also excited about using this powerful, robust chemistry to make other everyday materials.”
In 2014, researchers backed by BMW claimed to be on the verge of a breakthrough that would drop the price of carbon fiber by an astonishing 90 percent.
Those researchers, working for companies that make up the MAI Carbon Cluster partnership in Germany, have since made steady progress.
“This project was really successful with a reduction in process costs of 75 percent and that of tooling costs by 80 percent,” said MAI Carbon director Tjark von Reden as reported in an editorial by Inside Composites.
“The cycle time achieved for producing the parts was just 75 seconds.”