Carbon fibre, a common material in cars, aircraft and sports equipment, has been made from recycled forestry by principal investigator Dr Maurice N Collins and colleagues at the Bernal Institute in University of Limerick (UL).

“Our technology drastically reduces energy usage and carbon emissions during production, as well as the cost of carbon fibres. This is particularly significant as carbon fibres are known for their high performance and their high cost. In the future we can expect higher performance goods at lower cost to the consumer,” he said.

Carbon fibre is used in conjunction with plastic materials to produce composite materials, which are then used in commercial goods such as car-wing mirrors and wind turbine blades. The global market for these composite materials is worth upwards of €75bn.

The presence of biorefineries across Ireland and Europe previously represented a source of waste. In their conversion of plant matter or biomass to fuel, heat, power and chemicals, vast quantities of waste material called lignin are being produced.

With somewhere between 40m and 50m tons of lignin being produced worldwide every year, UL’s new technique provides an energy-efficient and waste-free process of using this by-product. Transforming this waste stream into a valuable source of material facilitates sustainability as well as recognising the need for modern materials.

Dr Mario Culebras Rubio, a researcher on the project and member of the Bernal Institute, said that it has also “been very successful in exploring alternative uses of lignin to produce carbon-based nanomaterials for energy harvesting and storage” and that it was a starting point for future research proposals.

The research that developed this new production process began with Libre, a project that aimed to free the composite industry of its reliance on oil-based production. Libre was funded by the Bio-based Industries Joint Undertaking, a €3.7bn partnership between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium.

With Libre now finished, further funding has been secured for the Vibes project, which seeks to utilise the technology to develop the first fully bio-based and recyclable composite materials.

Sam Cox

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