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Carbon fiber from lignin for cost-effective advanced composites

It may sound like something straight out of Rumpelstiltskin, but in Sweden, they're serious: two research institutes have joined forces to develop and market carbon fiber that is spun from trees.  Innventia, a research institute focusing on innovations based on forest raw materials and Swerea SICOMP, one of Europe's leading research institutes in the field of polymer fiber composites, have announced a road map for the project, the target of which is to have the new product ready for market by 2025.

It may sound like something straight out of Rumpelstiltskin, but in Sweden, they're serious: two research institutes have joined forces to develop and market carbon fiber that is spun from trees. 

Innventia, a research institute focusing on innovations based on forest raw materials and Swerea SICOMP, one of Europe's leading research institutes in the field of polymer fiber composites, have announced a road map for the project, the target of which is to have the new product ready for market by 2025.

Innventia already produces carbon fiber from lignin in the laboratory for research purposes and is now investigating the options for up-scaling the process. Encouragingly, the research conducted by this institute shows that lignin-based carbon fiber can be optimized for both structural (load-bearing) and non-structural applications. Time wise, however, the non-structural applications are probably closer to a market launch.

Lignin is a byproduct that is extracted in the pulping process in the papermaking industry. It is a highly abundant, versatile, non-toxic substance that is proving to be a valuable resource for the production of biochemical building blocks, as I wrote in an earlier article this week (Value-added biobased building blocks from lignin come within reach), and now, an affordable source of carbon fiber.

Carbon fiber is strong and light and has many applications. Today, the demand for carbon fiber is mainly limited by the high cost. As a result, the material is currently primarily used in products where performance is more important than price. By introducing a cost-effective lignin-based carbon fiber, the market could increase considerably. The road map launched by Innventia and Swerea SICOMP, although ambitious, shows how this might well be possible in just ten years and includes the following steps:

  • Work on a laboratory scale and pilot scale until 2017/2018, with the goal of producing data for a demonstration facility,
  • prior to industrial operation, establish a Swedish national demonstration facility for lignin-based carbon fiber, including composite manufacturing, with an annual capacity of approximately 50 tons of carbon fiber,
  • component testing 2018-2022 and
  • industrial production in Sweden by 2025.
"Innventia and Swerea SICOMP have a close strategic cooperation," says Peter Axegård of Innventia.

The Swedish R&D, research infrastructure and production expertise throughout the value chain, from forest-based raw materials to high quality carbon fiber for use in advanced construction materials, will be developed in order to contribute toward establishing industrial carbon fiber production in Sweden.

"By working together to develop expertise and experimental resources in a smart way, we will form a unique, unbroken value chain and a strong R&D environment from the forest to lignin-based carbon fiber products," says Hans Hansson, of Swerea SICOMP.

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