UBC researchers turn bitumen into carbon fibre
Canadian PlasticsAutomotive Materials Research & Development
The technology uses melt spinning to produce two sizes of fibres cleanly and economically, and has potential for use in electric cars.
Bitumen, the sticky substance produced through the distillation of crude oil – produced from Alberta’s oil sands, for example – has only a few uses: generally, it’s either burned as fuel or gets a second life as asphalt pavement. But a group of researchers from the Faculty of Applied Science at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have developed a way to convert bitumen into something more valuable: commercial-grade carbon fibre for use in electric vehicles (EVs), improving their performance and ultimately helping to boost EV adoption rates.
Known for their durability and light weight, carbon fibres not only enhance the performance of auto parts but also find applications in everyday products like tennis racquets, skateboards, and hockey sticks. The downside, however, is that producing these fibres is very expensive, with about half of the cost attributed to the use of polyacrylonitrile (PAN), a synthetic semicrystalline resin prepared by the polymerization of acrylonitrile. By switching to bitumen, the UBC researchers say, costs can be significantly reduced while also mitigating the environmental impact associated with bitumen, which releases carbon dioxide when burned.
At the core of the successful UBC formula – described recently in the journal Advances in Natural Sciences: Nanoscience and Nanotechnology – lies a process that isn’t radically different from how carbon fibres are currently made, but which uses a distinctive method of spinning finer fibres while maintaining the fibres’ structural integrity. Additionally, the team has developed two distinct fibre sizes: regular micro-diameter fibres, and nano-fibre structures.
Significantly, the team’s process enables the production of carbon fibres for less than $12 per kilogram, in contrast to the typical commercial rate of $33 per kilogram. “With a price point of $12 per kilogram, high-volume industries like automakers will have the opportunity to use more carbon fibres,” said lead UBC researcher Dr. Yasmine Abdin. “Currently, composite materials like carbon fibres comprise only about 15 per cent of a car’s composition. Affordable carbon fibres can potentially double this figure, which could be a game changer.”
The solution won the first two phases of the Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, a competition launched by Alberta Innovates to recover valuable products from oil sands, and the UBC team plans to apply for the third phase of the challenge, which will involve testing of the fibres on a larger scale, ultimately leading to commercial-scale production.