How Waste Could Offer Opportunities in American Manufacturing

Researchers from Texas A&M AgriLife Research have discovered a way to make high-quality carbon fiber from lignin, a waste material from the paper and pulp industry. Joshua Yuan, Texas A&M Agrilife researcher and associate professor of plant pathology and microbiology, said lignin is one of the most abundant biopolymers in the word. He said while scientists have been talking for years about making carbon fiber from it, none have been able to achieve good quality. “We have overcome one of the industry’s most challenging issues by discovering how to make good quality carbon fiber from waste,” said Yuan.

Carbon fiber is known for its strength, low weight and heat resistance, but it is expensive to produce. Yuan found that because lignin is a mixture of many molecules of many sizes and different chemical properties, it can be separated into different parts through fractionation. When the high density, high molecular weight portion is separated from the rest, it has a uniform structure that can be used for the formation of high-quality carbon fiber.

Carbon fiber from the process could be used to make everything from tennis rackets to plane and car parts. In fact, usage of carbon fiber in automotive manufacturing is expected to double by 2020, according to Composites Manufacturing.

Casey Selecman, senior manager of automotive advisory services at industrial research firm IHS Markit, said he expects the use of plastics and composites to increase as efficiency and carbon reductions continue to rise globally. “While metal and metal alloys are still critical to automotive design, automakers are finding innovative ways to leverage plastics and composites into their designs to help reduce vehicle weight and improve efficiency,” Selecman said.

IHS reports that doors, lift-gates and hoods are the easiest options where carbon fiber can be used to reduce vehicle weight. The material also could be used for non-critical structures such as seats, instrument panels, engine cradles, pans and covers.

Yuan said that the U.S. paper and pulp industry accumulates more than 50 million tons of lignin per year, and only 2% is currently recycled into new products. The team of researchers had previously made fuel and bioproducts from lignin, but found the process still left large piles of waste. He said the process could help manufacturers have access to lower cost materials, help reduce waste and even help the agricultural industry by spinning off new carbon fiber production facilities. “It would put agriculture production and industry together in a bioeconomy making renewable products,” Yuan said.

Are your wheels turning from these ideas? Perhaps it would be worth investigating how recycled lignin could be used at your firm to improve or create new products.

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Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.

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