Lignin, a biopolymer, is a waste product created in paper and pulp production. It’s not a useless substance—as it can be used to create bioplastic—but anywhere between 50 and 200 tons of lignin waste stacks up every year in the U.S.

That could change if a new development from Texas A&M AgriLife Research proves reliable. Researchers there have found a way to turn lignin into useful, versatile carbon fiber.

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Inspired By Abundance 

Motivated by just how abundant it is as a waste product, Dr. Joshua Yuan, associate professor of plant pathology and microbiology, and his team of researchers looked at the molecular structure of lignin and its various chemical properties.

Upon separating its complex molecular structure, Dr. Yuan and his team discovered that certain high density components of lignin showed potential for use in carbon fiber manufacturing.

Complete Use Of Lignin 
Currently, the research team is examining ways to refine and improve the quality of the lignin derived carbon fiber. If their method could be improved to produce better quality carbon fiber in an efficient manner, that would amount to a considerable reduction in the amount of lignin that simply becomes waste.

“The beauty of this technology is that it allows us to use lignin completely. Basically what we do is fractionate lignin so that the high molecular weight fraction can be used for carbon fiber and the low molecular weight fraction can be used for bioplastics and products like asphalt binder modifier used on roads.”  Dr. Yuan explained in a study published in Green Chemistry

Credit: Christine Twigg

Potential Job Creator
In addition to creating a virtually waste-free process for eliminating previously unusable lignin, the findings could lead to a low cost source for the carbon fiber that’s used to make strong and lightweight car parts, aerospace components, sporting equipment, and a range of other products.

Biorefining lignin into carbon fiber could also be an American job creator, as Dr. Yuan explained, “…the entire supply chain is in the United States, which means the jobs would be here. The biomass is grown, harvested and transported here.

It would be difficult to ever ship that much waste to another country for production. It all stays here, […] It would put agriculture production and industry together in a bioeconomy making renewable products.”


What are your thoughts on this potential breakthrough for carbon fiber production?

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