A new investigation into the creation of carbon fibre could make the material cheaper, and cleaner, for future manufacturing.
University of Limerick (UL) is leading a new international project that aims to build carbon fibre from forestry by-products.
The €4.9m project will take lignin, a polymer found in wood and bark, and try to create an alternative to the current dominant process of petroleum-based carbon fibres.
Carbon fibre is used in a plethora of industries as a reinforcement material, featuring prominently in everything from automotive manufacturing to wind energy development.
When added to plastics, carbon fibre improves the mechanical properties, making it a lightweight, yet strong addition to numerous fields.
However, it’s costly to make, so finding a way to use natural by-products rather than petroleum is one way to bring down the cost.
Called the Libre project (Lignin-Based Carbon Fibres for Composites), this Horizon 2020 operation will be led by Dr Maurice Collins of the Stokes Labs, Bernal Institute at UL.
“The production of carbon fibre from lignin will allow us to move away from the reliance on fossil fuel,” Collins said.
“Together, the project partners will create new innovative materials and manufacturing processes capable of lowering the cost of end products by 30pc, while cutting in half the CO2 footprint of carbon fibre production,” he added.
Though Collins is leading Libre from UL, there are other partners from Ireland, as well as Germany, Sweden, Belgium, UK and Italy, involved.
Ultimately, the team’s aim is to create an EU advantage, whereby companies within the union can benefit from an indigenous cottage industry of cheap, green carbon fibre variants.
Wind energy company ÉireComposites is involved too, with the Irish Composites Centre at UL another Ireland-based stakeholder.
The latter’s director, Dr Terry McGrail, claims the global market for composite materials, which in 2016 was around $80bn, will be growing at 7pc per year. Satisfied with relevant innovation, and reducing CO2 in the process, this project should be welcomed.