PhotoCompanies often talk about reducing their carbon footprint by cutting down on waste, but could all that extra carbon that’s out there actually fuel American industry?

Researchers from Texas A&M seem to think so. Dr. Joshua Yuan and his colleagues say that waste material from the paper and pulp industry could be repurposed to make all sorts of products, from tennis rackets to entire cars. The secret, they say, is collecting and repurposing a substance called lignin that is found in all that waste.

"People have been thinking about using lignin to make carbon fiber for many years, but achieving good quality has been an issue,” said Yuan. “We have overcome one of the industry’s most challenging issues by discovering how to make good quality carbon fiber from waste.”

Carbon fiber production

In basic terms, lignin is a class of organic materials that helps form the tissues and structural walls in certain plants and algae. The researchers say that about 50 million tons of lignin is thrown away each year in products disposed of by the paper and pulp industry.

Initially, the research team found some initial success in making fuel and bioproducts from lignin, but the processes involved still led to a lot of waste. That’s when they started thinking outside the box and considered making other products.

“We separated lignin into different parts, and then we found that certain parts of lignin are very good for high quality carbon fiber manufacturing,” explains Yuan. “We are still improving and fine-tuning the quality, but eventually this carbon fiber could be used for windmills, sport materials, and even bicycles and cars…Carbon Fiber is much lighter but has the same mechanical strength as other materials used for those products now. This material can be used for a lot of different applications.

Creating U.S. jobs

The researchers believe that the process they’re developing makes complete use of lignin and dramatically cuts down on waste. They say that certain parts of the substance could be used to make anything from bioplastics to asphalt binder modifiers that are used to make roads.

Perhaps best of all, Yuan points out that the sustainable nature of lignin allows for an economic return that would create jobs and fuel economic growth in rural areas of the U.S. where production would most likely take place.

“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,” he said.

The full study has been published in Green Chem.

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