As is common with these things, the authors of the actual scientific article present it more rationally and with less unjustified hype than the Popular Fiction article does. Their blurb says
>A sweet source to make acrylonitrile
>Much of the attention directed toward displacing petroleum feedstocks with biomass has focused on fuels. However, there are also numerous opportunities in commodity chemical production. One such candidate is acrylonitrile, a precursor to a wide variety of plastics and fibers that is currently derived from propylene. Karp et al. efficiently manufactured this compound from an ester (ethyl 3-hydroxypropanoate) that can be sourced renewably from sugars. The process relies on inexpensive titania as a catalyst and avoids the side production of cyanide that accompanies propylene oxidation.
In particular, they do not claim that this is going to radically decrease cost or that the petroleum feedstock is a significant driver of the cost of carbon fiber. I think this is motivated more by a general concept that we should get away from relying on petroleum, because we might run out of it. It seems to me more likely that we'll stop burning (as much) petroleum, and thus we won't run out, and will have it available for stuff like making carbon fiber. But even though I find the hype in the Popular Fiction article annoying, I like this research, for the fact low-cost catalyst which might be a real way to reduce the cost, and for avoiding the production of cyanide.
Adding some more details since there's been so much interest:
From the scientific paper, not the popular science summary, some key numbers and statements around these issues are:
>... state-of-the-art materials capable of producing ACN at molar yields of 83% from propylene. However, fluctuations in the price of the propylene feedstock translate directly to ACN price volatility.
>2 lbs of ACN are required to generate 1 lb of fiber
>On the basis of this proposed process, we performed a techno-economic analysis predicting the selling price of ACN at $0.89/lb from lignocellulosic sugars and $0.76/lb from sucrose. These target prices are in the range of fossil fuel–derived ACN prices between $0.40 and $1.00/lb over the past decade. Additionally, the greenhouse gas emissions from this process were estimated to achieve a 14.1% improvement relative to propylene-derived ACN.
So that translates to a contribution to the cost of carbon fiber from the feedstock of $0.80 to $2/lb from petroleum or $1.52 to $1.78/lb from the new process. Best case, we are saving $0.48/lb of carbon fiber; worst case more than doubling the cost. Making carbon fiber requires more than ACN--it also requires a lot of energy and a lot of special equipment. The cost of the fibers--not the finished composite parts using them--is about $7-8 in large quantities. So best case we are talking about a 6 or 7% decrease in cost. That's a fantastic research contribution, and the authors should be proud of it and that attention it's getting.
Now given those numbers, consider how the Popular Fiction article begins:
> Carbon fiber is made from oil and other costly ingredients, making the end product exceptionally expensive. That’s why carbon fiber shows up in race cars but rarely makes it into minivans.
>That could change. Scientists say it may soon be possible to make carbon fiber from plants instead of petroleum, driving down costs, making the material more widely available for use in cars, planes and other vehicles.
There's a ounce of truth in each of those sentences but it deliberately implies a bigger impact than is plausible. Especially when you consider that not only is ACN just one part of the cost of carbon fiber: in additon, the cost of the carbon fiber is just one part of the cost of making a carbon fiber composite part. A lot of progress is being made in making the further steps more automated, but that isn't what this piece of work is about.
The problem is that oil is staying relatively cheap as the USA becomes the the largest producer of oil. As a side effect, the USA is also becoming the world powerhouse in petrochemicals like plastic and carbon fiber from oil.
So basically skipping the middle-man of time by replacing ancient decomposed heavily processed plant life for new slightly less processed plant life
They already used cellulose as a precursor in the 70s. Union Carbide for example had a fiber named "Thornel 100" in 1971 that outperformed any PAN-based fiber at that time. I could link you the paper, if you are interested, but it's in german.
i tought the entire point of carbon fiber was to not make it from petroleum
What i would love to see take off in the united states is bioplastic bags.
There are a few differences between steel and carbon fiber, a lot of high end cars use carbon fiber in place of aluminum, but the composite material is only strong in tension along the directions of its fibers.
It's not going to be able to replace the structural components in modern passenger cars without some significant overhaul on passenger safety systems.
It's great as a body panel if you can make it cheap, but again it's not a tough material which means it fails completely when it fails such as in impact events.
But this is a cool article highlighting the process improvement for acrylonitrile synthesis. The chemical is a precursor for modern lab and medical gloves too so it could have a significant impact.