Carbon Mitigation Through Carbon Fiber?

A cloth of woven carbon filamentsImage via Wikipedia

Here’s an idea – let’s just suck the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn it into carbon fiber to build superlight cars! These superlight cars would significantly reduce our demand for gasoline in the short term, and enable a right-sized hydrogen-based transportation fuel economy in the long term! Sounds great, right? But it’s a pipe dream right now – today carbon fiber is made from PolyAcryloNitrile (PAN), which is made from petroleum, and it’s an expensive and time-consuming process to make the fiber, and to make automobile parts from it.

Let’s quickly tot up the pros and cons of carbon fiber as part of a profitable solution to the world’s energy problems:

Pros:

  • Enables superlight cars, which require much smaller (therefore relatively less expensive as well as more efficient) engines to provide equivalent performance to current cars
  • Huge safety advantages, due to a) vehicles having less kinetic energy due to lower weight and b) structures can be incredibly strong and or selectively weak to protect passengers and provide crumple zones
  • Can significantly reduce the number of parts per vehicle
  • Can significantly reduce assembly time per vehicle

Cons:

  • 2-10 times more expensive per part than steel
  • Carbon fiber production significantly lower than necessary for application to even a fraction of new vehicles
  • Cycle times for parts are typically in hours, rather than minutes as for steel parts
  • Design expertise is limited
  • Process for making fibers is environmentally unfriendly
  • Fabrication techniques have a large amount of fiber waste, compounding the cost disadvantage

Despite the advantages of carbon fiber, the disadvantages seem so overwhelming that many analysts have discounted it as a near term option. For example, the recent MIT report “On The Road In 2035” asserts:

“Polymer composites [that is, carbon fiber reinforced composites, ed.] are also expected to replace some steel in the vehicle, but to a smaller degree given high cost inhibitions.”

So, the future for carbon fiber is not looking rosy. But… There is some hope on the horizon. The companies, organizations, and research labs that break the code can look forward to significant returns, so the investment in addressing carbon fiber’s disadvantages is large and growing. Several startups are promising significant improvements in cost and cycle time, while multiple labs are addressing the questions of feedstock, environmental impact, cycle time, and efficiency. Amory Lovins at Rocky Mountain Institute already argues that the time is now to initiate the transition to composite cars, with his Hypercar.

In the next installment, we’ll cover the following topics on the work of improving carbon fiber composites.

  • Reducing the cost
  • Improving cycle time
  • Reducing waste
  • Using environmentally friendly processes for feedstock generation, fiber creation, and fabrication
  • Other alternatives for strong, lightweight composites, including new biomemetic materials
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2 thoughts on “Carbon Mitigation Through Carbon Fiber?”

  1. Cool post! Do know where I might be able to dig up some more specific info on the “environmentally unfriendly” impacts of making carbon fiber? It’d be great to know, like, how much energy and petroleum goes into 1 kg of carbon fiber, for example. Thanks!

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