Better carbon fiber: NCSU researchers find a new way to make it more energy efficient

RALEIGH- in a new to study, researchers at North Carolina State University have found a way to improve the energy efficiency of part of the manufacturing process for carbon fiber – a strong material sometimes used instead of steel to make vehicles , aircraft and other lighter and potentially more fuel-efficient products.

In the Review of Applied Polymer Science, researchers reported the results of an experiment where they added two bio-based chemicals found in certain fruits into a carbon fiber precursor material. They found that with the addition of the two chemicals, starting the chemical conversion process of making carbon fiber required less energy. The chemicals are sugar acids called glucaric acid and mucic acid.

“There is a growing demand for carbon fiber, and when it comes to low cost fiber, one of the main applications is for use as a structural material in vehicles,” said Ericka Ford, an assistant professor of textile engineering, chemistry, and science at NC State. “In this study, we found that by adding the two chemicals into the precursor material, we can potentially reduce the amount of energy needed to complete a step in the carbon fiber manufacturing process and help reduce some costs.”

Before using the chemicals in the lab, the researchers turned to computer modeling to get a glimpse of what would happen when they added the two chemical compounds to the precursor material. Their interest in chemicals was first piqued after one, glucaric acid, was listed by the US Department of Energy as a chemical of industrial importance.

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“We were interested in understanding how these chemicals would interact with the precursor material, so using computer models and simulations, we were able to examine their interaction parameters even before starting lab work,” said the co- study author Hannah Dedmon, an NC State graduate student. “We’re able to slow things down and focus on atomic-level detail, which we’re blind to in the lab.”

Next, they experimentally tested making the precursor material, a plastic material called polyacrylonitrile (PAN) sometimes referred to as “acrylic.”

The process of making carbon fiber from PAN is a “spinning” process of making very fine filaments first – like making cotton candy or like a spider weaving a web, the researchers said. .

First, they make a gel-like material that has a similar consistency to honey. Then they push the “honey” through a tiny needle to turn into a tiny filament, like a tiny hair. Then they heat the hair to very high temperatures. This heating process helps convert the PAN filaments into a structure that forms the basis of carbon fiber.

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The additives reduced the energy needed to start the chemical process of making the carbon structure from the PAN by five times. The researchers say it could also reduce the overall cost of this step in the manufacturing process by speeding up the reaction.

“These are small molecules with functional groups that can start the reaction much more efficiently than if they hadn’t been in the fiber,” said study lead author Debjyoti Banerjee, a doctoral student at NC State.

The researchers plan to look at other additives and possibly use computer models to predict which might get the most bang for their buck.

“We want to look at other natural products that we could add to PAN fibers and influence their usefulness for conversion to carbon fiber,” Ford said.

The study, “Kinetics of cyclization of gel-spun polyacrylonitrile aldaric acid sugars using the isoconversional approach,” was authored by Banerjee, Dedmon, Ford, Farzin Rahmani, and Melissa A. Pasquinelli. It was funded by the North Carolina State Chancellor’s Innovation Fund.

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