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Tomorrow's carbon fiber could be made from plastic bags


March 28, 2012

Some of the carbon fiber shapes, created out of polyethylene using Oak Ridge's new technique

Some of the carbon fiber shapes, created out of polyethylene using Oak Ridge's new technique

Thanks to research currently being conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, our unwanted plastic bags may one day be recycled into carbon fiber. Not only that, but the properties of the fibers themselves could be fine-tuned, allowing different types of carbon fiber to be created for specific applications.

The Oak Ridge team, led by materials scientist Amit Naskar, start with polyethylene-base fibers – these could conceivably come from waste plastic sources, such as shopping bags and carpet backing scraps. Using a “a multi-component melt extrusion-based fiber spinning method,” the surface contours of these fibers can be customized, and their diameter can be manipulated with submicron precision. It is also possible to control their porosity.

Bundles of these fibers are dipped into a proprietary acid chemical bath. A process known as sulfonation causes the plastic molecules to bond with one another, transforming each bundle of fibers into one joined black fiber.

When subsequently exposed to very high temperatures, these fibers won’t melt. The heat does, however, cause many of their chemical components to turn to a gaseous state. After these have off-gassed, what’s left behind is a fiber composed mostly of carbon.

Many uses are envisioned for the plastic-derived carbon fiber – because of its tunable porosity, it may be particularly well-suited for applications such as filtration or energy harvesting. It is also hoped that the material could be used by the American auto industry, to make tough yet lightweight, inexpensive car parts.

A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Advanced Materials.

Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

How'se this compare with Tegris ?


This could help rid the world of a menace: some of the microscopic plastic particles in the oceans. One aspect of the report might be worrisome: the mention of 'off-gassing' does not say what happens to the gases given off in this process. Are they toxic?...usable? ...or wasted?


Much of today's carbon fibre is already created from a polymer (plastic) precursor. ( polyacrylonitrile (PAN) )

It is great that they are considering other commonly used plastivs and improving the quality of the fibres produces when the plastic is anaerobically ablated....

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