NREL Looks to the Past for Future Lightweighting

By on February 10, 2019 in IN THE NEWS

In an example of what’s old is new, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) researchers traveled back in time to find a new way to produce acrylonitrile (ACN) from renewable sources. This would mean that instead of using petrochemicals to turn ACN into carbon fiber, biomass could be used—as was done at the turn of the 20th century.

“In the early 1900s, researchers—and people in general—didn’t have access yet to the vast petrochemicals that are available today,” NREL chemical engineer Eric Karp said. “That’s because the petrochemical industry really wasn’t developed yet. Researchers were forced to use what was easily available to them, and that mostly included natural products.”

These techniques for making chemicals from natural products were “mostly forgotten as the petrochemical industry really came online in the ’40s and ’50s,” according to Karp. Now, renewable feedstocks are back in focus and the methods developed nearly a century ago are helping guide modern research.

This is of great interest to the lightweighting world because “Carbon fiber is this amazing lightweight material,” Karp explained. “Imagine replacing all of the steel and aluminum in a car with carbon fiber. Think of how far a car would go with the gas mileage you could get. You’re looking at 60 miles per gallon for the average car on the road with existing engine technology.”