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US researchers turn paper waste into carbon fibre

Waste created by the paper and pulping industry could be turned into high-quality manufacturing material and potentially create new jobs for the US, a new study has found.

Around 50 million tons a year of waste, known as lignin (the structural part of a plant) is produced every year by the US, with only two per cent recycled into new products.

And while lignin has been studied as a potential source of carbon fibre since the 1860s, it had previously been considered too expensive to produce – until now.

By studying lignin more closely and looking at other ways to use it, rather than just utilising it as a fuel (which created too much unused waste itself), Dr Joshua Yuan and his team found it could be made into a quality carbon fibre that could be used to manufacture anything from bicycles to cars.

While they are still fine tuning the quality of the fibre they do envisage it to be able to make things such as windmills, sport materials and even bicycles and cars.

“The beauty of this technology is that it allows us to use lignin completely. Basically what we do is fractionate lignin so that the high molecular weight fraction can be used for carbon fibre and the low molecular weight fraction can be used use for bioplastics and products like asphalt binder modifier used on roads,” Dr Yuan said.

The vision is to create a multi-stream integrated biorefinery that will create a number of bioplastic products in the one facility.

“When we are able to use the same biomass to produce different things, that allows the best economic return by being sustainable,” he said. “Eventually that would lead to increasing jobs and enhancing rural economic growth.

“And 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.”

The research is published in Green Chemistry.

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