UC Davis process produces gasoline-range hydrocarbons from biomass-derived levulinic acid; field-to-tank yield of >60% claimed
IHS Automotive forecasts global production of plug-in vehicles to rise by 67% this year

DOE to award up to $12M for technologies to produce renewable carbon fiber from biomass

The US Department of Energy (DOE) will award (DE-FOA-0000996) up to $12 million in funding to advance the development of a cost-competitive pathway to produce high-performance carbon fiber for vehicle lightweighting from renewable non-food biomass. Reducing a vehicle’s weight by just 10% can improve fuel economy by 6% to 8%.

Carbon fiber composites are lightweight, yet strong, materials that can greatly improve vehicle fuel efficiency when incorporated into structural and non-structural components. Carbon fibers are polymers that are typically made from petroleum and natural gas feedstocks (propylene and ammonia, respectively) that react to form acrylonitrile (ACN) which is then polymerized and spun into polyacrylonitrile (PAN).

The volatility of the raw material prices and the energy intensive processes used in the manufacturing contribute to high cost carbon fibers (>$10/lb), which deter widespread use by the automotive industry.

The objectives of the Renewable Carbon Fibers FOA are 1) to identify and to develop a cost-competitive technology pathway to high performance carbon fibers using biomass as a starting raw feedstock and bio-ACN as a target product; and 2) to engage with industrial manufacturers of PAN that will benchmark and validate the bio-ACN with respect to the key technical performance attributes important for manufacturing lightweight automotive structural components.

The goal of the FOA is to enable technologies that can produce bio-ACN at a modeled cost of $1.00/pound or less, thereby to enable the overall manufacturing of carbon fiber at less than or equal to $5.00/lb by 2020 suitable for vehicle structural components.

If the goal is met by a successful project team, and the activities conducted under these awards are properly synergized and coordinated with other complementary activities within the EERE Advanced Manufacturing Office and the Vehicle Technologies Office, then, suggests EERE, the anticipated outcomes are:

  • Enabling the use of cellulosic sugars or lignin in the production of millions of metric tons of higher value commodity chemicals, such as bio-ACN, thereby avoiding an equivalent amount of fossil fuel derived chemicals and generating more than $57B of new revenue throughout the renewable carbon fiber supply chain; and

  • Enabling the substantial market penetration of the resulting renewable lightweight carbon fiber to assist in reducing the average weight of passenger cars by 10%, thereby reducing annual petroleum consumption by more than 5 billion gallons in the United States.

The DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) anticipates making awards that range from $6,000,000 to $12,000,000; projects will run up to 40 months.

Background. DOE held a workshop in June 2013 in Detroit to engage external stakeholders in discussing the state-of-technology and performance requirements for automotive carbon fiber materials with respect to PAN and other carbon fiber intermediates, and technology routes to synthesize these intermediates using biomass feedstocks.

The inputs of more than 80 diverse stakeholders with different expertise and representing industry (43%); national laboratory/government (34%); and academia (10%) were gathered and captured in the Renewable Carbon Fiber Workshop Summary Report.

The attendees generally agreed that ACN was likely to be the most near-term carbon fiber monomer to target and the most likely to gain ready market acceptance. However, the cost of production for bio-ACN is expected to exceed that of conventional ACN in the near term as the technologies necessary for the conversion process have only recently been shown under laboratory settings.

In addition, it remains unclear whether bio-ACN can meet the chemical specifications and manufacturability requirements to generate a carbon fiber composite suitable for vehicle structural components, with tensile strength exceeding 250 ksi (kilopounds per square inch) and a Young’s modulus exceeding 25 Msi (megapounds per square inch).

In addition, almost nothing is known about the potential of the new biomanufacturing process to lessen the energy intensity and associated greenhouse gas emissions over the convention carbon fiber manufacturing process when considering the full material life-cycle.

Prior attempts to produce renewable carbon fiber have focused on converting lignin. A half-century of research and development resulted in identifying key parameters for spinning lignin into carbon fibers, including the range of molecular weights and compositions best suited for production. Various methods for producing carbon fibers from lignin have been tested, with melt-blowing of soluble lignin emerging as the favored method. Lignin has also been used to displace a percentage of PAN in conventional carbon fibers, but the resulting material did not meet targets for quality.

The challenges associated with direct conversion of lignin to finished carbon fibers, including meeting structural specifications and developing new manufacturing processes and lines, mean that it could take longer for its commercial potential to be realized than drop-in bio-ACN.

Glycerol is another potential raw material for bio-based acrylonitrile. The indirect ammoxidation of glycerol to acrylonitrile was demonstrated in a tandem reactor where glycerol dehydration formed an acrolein intermediate followed by the ammoxidation of acrolein to acrylonitrile. The resulting acrylonitrile can be polymerized to form polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fibers for subsequent conversion to carbon fiber.

These insights led to the development of the following technical priorities for the DOE renewable carbon fiber effort:

  • Highly efficient, scalable and integrated process to convert biomass into intermediates that are suitable for further upgrading to bio-ACN;

  • Highly efficient, scalable and integrated process to convert biomass intermediates into bio-ACN;

  • Highly effective separations and products recovery processes at each of the material junctions that are able to be integrated with the conversion technologies; and,

  • Manufacturing process validation of the bio-ACN technical performance attributes as manifested in the final PAN white fiber.

FOA Topic of Interest. There is only one topic area for this FOA: the conversion of raw biomass sugars, algal oils, or lignin to high quality acrylonitrile. The first phase of the project will be focused on establishing the critical functions of the prototype system at bench scale. The second phase of the project will be focused on validating the prototype performance at a larger scale.



" KiOR had obtained a yield of 72 gallons per bone dry ton (about 41% gasoline, 37% diesel, 22% fuel oil) for between $2.60 and $2.80 per gallon."

If true, the multi-$billion deep offshore and frozen Arctic oil wells are going to seem VERY expensive.


Bio-mass should NOT be used to make liquid fuels because the process contribute to increased GHG and is not sustainable.

A better use is to make strong fibres, plastics, essential chemicals etc.

Carbon fibres for lighter airplanes, trucks, buses, cars etc is a good example.



China has 200 million tons of rice straw that can be made into synthetic liquid hydrocarbon transportation fuels. Go tell them they should make tennis rackets instead.

Roger Pham

Good point, Harvey, regarding carbon sequestration of biomass. By making carbon fiber, the carbon is essentially sequestered instead of releasing CO2 into the air.

Instead of burying the charcoal in the ground, the carbon can be turned into lightweight mobile structures to save more fuels. Even when transportation will be 100% carbon free, such as FCV's, the carbon fiber will still be needed to make compress H2 tank. 3/4th of the cost of a H2 tank currently is due to the cost of carbon fiber (CF). If CF cost can be reduced by half, then, this will make H2-based transportation cheaper and quicker to displace fossil fuels.

So, by using RE-H2 in compressed H2 tank, and perhaps future FCV's made from CF, not only we are not releasing anymore CO2 into the air, we are going to remove CO2 from the air via the biomass route. What is there not to like about this scenario?


Carbon sequestration of biomass is of course preferable to burning it as fuel but let's not forget there is still a lot of biomass, produced as waste, that gets burnt without even the consideration of turning it into fuel. Even worst, there are some types of biomass that, if left for too long, becomes an even better GHG than CO2.

Until there is a real market for megatons of carbon fibre and the major portion of the vehicle fleet runs on E-energy we may need to turn biomass into fuel because it's the second best option.


. . . or at least better than the alternative.

Roger Pham

Good point, ai vin.
It all has to do with cost. If a way is found to make biomass recycled carbon fiber (CF) real cheap, then perhaps most durable goods can be made out of recycled biomass instead of steel or aluminum, thereby allowing for extensive carbon sequestration AS WELL AS savings of energy from the processing of steel and aluminum, which requires a lot of energy.

Any left-over biomass not used in the making of CF can be turned into biochar and returned into the field. However, if there will still be a market for hydrocarbon fuels, then the left-over biomass from the production of CF can be hydrogenated with RE-H2 during pyrolysis to double or triple the yield of bio-HC fuels. I suspect that hydrocarbon fuels will be phased out in due time due to advancements in H2-FC and battery. Even big trucks can run on H2 for long haul routes. Perhaps transoceanic shipping may still require LNG for which bio-methane will serve the purpose.


The world will soon have more than 800 million internal combustion vehicles that use liquid hydrocarbon fuels. No amount of wishing and hoping about EV/FCV is going to change that.

We either start using more tar sands or we find a better way. You synthesize diesel, gasoline and jet fuel from biomass then return the bio char to the land. We get carbon neutral fuel and more fertile land.


Well SJC, that "better way" may be E-fuels: Use engineered microorganisms directly and continuously to convert sunlight and waste CO2 into infrastructure-ready fuels; http://www.greencarcongress.com/2014/02/20140203-audiefuels.html

Or E-gas; http://www.greencarcongress.com/2013/06/audi-20130625.html


I will believe that when I see it, so far Joule is a press release. There are several companies doing bio syntheric fuels successfully. Not to mention Sasol and Shell Pearl showing that gasification and synthesis work in mass production.


Great, the more companies working on it - the better its chances.


Too much efforts and funds are currently being used to produce more and more liquid fuels instead building H2 stations and quick battery charging stations for future BEVs and FCEVs.

Why should we continue to promote an old fashion dying technology instead of phasing it out and promoting replacement technologies such as BEVs, FCEVs, Solar and Wind energies capture, storage and distribution, H2 stations and quick battery charging stations?


Because E-fuels are a way to store renewable electricity in a form that can be used in vehicles that are currently on the road and are durable enough that their owners may not want to replace them for years to come.

Yes, H2 stations and quick battery charging stations are great for future BEVs and FCEVs but we still need a solution for the millions of legacy vehicles that aren't going away any time soon.


Fortunately, legacy vehicles only last an average of 11 years. That's a relatively very short time.

Countries and electrified vehicles manufacturers will have to invest more into quick charge e-stations and H2 networks and clean e-energy production to support them.

Alternatively, energy suppliers with very deep pockets, will move in and try to control the market.

Roger Pham

Furthermore, existing fossil-fuel infrastructure will last for many decades more, even if no more are being built. This is more than enough to support existing fleets of vehicles. New investments should be on building RE infrastructures to support PEV's and FCV's and to wean off fossil fuels.


Well, there still the problem of those "gearheads" who can't live without their "vroom vroom." I want them to be green as well.


Furthermore, if we can produce E-fuels at a lower price than fossil fuels that will only hasten the end of the fossil fuel age. And the tar sands in particular: Unconventional oil, like the tar sands & Arctic or deep sea drilling are not only the most evironmentally risky they are also the most costly to develope. If we can provide a cheaper alternative they will be the first to be dropped from the supply chain.

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