21. Jul 2014
Researchers at the University of North Texas have created a new carbon fiber from plants that can replace common fossil products in wide range of goods including parts for cars, aircraft, electronics and sports equipment. The patent-pending carbon fiber also is stronger and lighter than similar products on the market.
The new carbon fiber is made from C-lignin, a linear polymer that was discovered by UNT Distinguished Research Professor Richard Dixon and Research Professor Fang Chen in 2012 and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Lignin is the substance that makes plants woody and firm, and helps plants stand upright. C-lignin is found in high concentrations in the seed coats of plants including vanilla orchids and species of cactus.
"Finding new uses for plant materials like C-lignin is a great step toward replacing common petroleum- and coal-based products with products made from natural materials," Dixon said. Those products include carbon fiber; engineering plastics and thermoplastic elastomers, which can be stretched and formed to produce other products; synthetic foams and membranes; and other fuels, products and chemicals currently sourced from petroleum.
"Before our recent discoveries involving lignin, we thought lignin was just lignin, and there was nothing else we could do with it," Dixon said. "Now we know that businesses can use this material to create and replace petroleum-sourced products on the market, which is good for the environment."
The new carbon fiber was created in the laboratory of Nandika D'Souza, a joint professor in the departments of mechanical and energy engineering and materials science and engineering in UNT's College of Engineering. D'Souza and engineering doctoral student Mangesh Nar engineer low carbon footprint products using bioresources through the National Science Foundation's Partnerships for Innovation Program.
"Unlike carbon fiber made from other ligno-cellulose or lignin sources, C-lignin is ideal for creating naturally-sourced carbon fiber because C-lignin fibers are linear, and can be easily processed into carbon fiber with the same equipment often used to produce fossil-fuel based carbon fibers," D'Souza said.
Dixon and Chen joined the UNT faculty in 2013. The C-lignin discovery was made while working on a research project for the U.S. Department of Energy's BioEnergy Science Center (BESC). UNT became a partner of the BioEnergy Science Center in 2013. (KL)
Photo: Individual fibers for c-lignin-based carbon fiber are extracted in a lab at the University of North Texas.