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Renewable Carbon Fiber

Stage: Development

Carbon fiber – a lightweight, strong, and flexible material – is a preferable alternative to alloys (e.g., steel) for a variety of both structural (load-bearing) and non-structural applications (e.g., thermal insulation). In example, carbon fiber can be used to lightweight vehicles for higher fuel economies with no change to the engine or to lighten the blades, and to allow for expanded blade lengths, of wind turbines.

A key building block for the production of high quality carbon fiber is acrylonitrile, which accounts for around 90% of the carbon fiber production, according to the Clean Energy Manufacturing Analysis Center’s 2016 study, Carbon Fiber from Biomass. Acrylonitrile, which is predominately used as a monomer in the production of polyacrylonitrile (PAN) polymers, is primarily derived through ammoxidation reactions of propylene – a reaction that produces undesired side products (i.e., hydrogen cyanide) and requires complex catalysts. In addition, precursors (i.e., PAN) account for approximately 51% of the manufacturing costs for carbon fiber, which, as the price of petroleum changes, leads to swings in the price of acrylonitrile and, subsequently, carbon fiber costs. To improve upon these limitations, NREL researchers have developed a novel process for synthesizing nitriles from non-food plant resources.

This novel process of synthesizing nitriles from non-food plant resources is a more controlled reaction over simpler catalysts and comprises the selective reaction of esters derived from fermentation to result in bio-derived acrylonitrile. Furthermore, this process eliminates the release of harmful by-products and does not rely upon petroleum-derived feedstocks, de-coupling the price of nitrile polymers from the price of petroleum. 

For more information, contact Eric Payne at Eric.Payne@nrel.gov.

ROI 16-37

Applications and Industries

  • Carbon Fiber
  • Biofuels
  • Lignin utilization
  • Vehicle Light-weighting
  • Wind turbines


  • Biologically derived
  • No hazardous byproducts
  • De-couples the price of polymers from the price of petroleum