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Canadian Researchers Turn Black Bitumen into 'Green' Carbon Fiber

Article-Canadian Researchers Turn Black Bitumen into 'Green' Carbon Fiber

UBC Applied Science/Paul Joseph University of British Columbia researchers
Dr. Yasmine Abdin (right) and her collaborators are transforming bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands into carbon fiber at much less cost than what is currently available.
Bitumen, the sticky product from Alberta’s oil sands, is normally burned as fuel or used in asphalt pavement, but what if it could be turned into something more valuable, like carbon fiber?

University of British Columbia (UBC) materials engineer Dr. Yasmine Abdin and her colleagues, Dr. Frank Ko in the faculty of applied science and Dr. Scott Renneckar in the faculty of forestry, have developed a way to convert bitumen into commercial-grade carbon fiber. Canada is famous for its oil sands, or tar sands as they are sometimes inaccurately referred to, which consist of a mixture of sand, water, clay, and bitumen, according to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

Their solution, described recently in the journal Advances in Natural Sciences: Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, uses melt spinning to produce two sizes of fibers cleanly and economically. Projected cost is $12 per kg, compared with commercial carbon fibers that normally cost $33 per kg.

The solution won the first two phases of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, a competition launched by Alberta Innovates to recover valuable products from oil sands. The team plans to apply for the third phase of the challenge.

The team expects to start commercial production in 2024 and sees wide applications for its carbon fibers in electric vehicles (EVs), improving their performance and ultimately helping to boost EV adoption rates.

“Carbon-fiber bodies can compensate for the weight of the typical EV battery pack. Using carbon fibers in the chassis helps the battery stay cool, improving safety and extending the driving range,” said Abdin.

With around one million cars and other light vehicles being manufactured in Canada annually, she added, using local carbon fiber can give automakers a competitive edge while supporting Canada’s emission-reduction goals.

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