Carbon fiber composites are lightweight, strong materials, whose mechanical properties make them an ideal substitute for heavier steels currently used in many applications. For example, replacing steel in automotive vehicles with carbon fiber composites can significantly improve the vehicle’s fuel economy. Carbon fiber is commonly created using a chemical synthesis process that is very energy intensive and inefficient, resulting in carbon fiber prices that are too high to be economically competitive. Advanced production techniques are needed to produce carbon fiber or carbon fiber precursors using a fraction of the energy and costs currently required.
Project Innovation + Advantages:
Johns Hopkins University will develop and assess components of a self-powered system to convert methane (the main component in natural gas) into carbon fiber. Methane can be separated into carbon and hydrogen, or burned for energy. The team will develop processes to use methane both to power the system and serve as carbon feedstock in a four stage system. First, methane is decomposed into hydrogen and carbon, and combined into a carbon/metal aggregate. Second, the carbon/metal aggregate is melted, producing a liquid melt containing carbon dissolved within it. Third, the melt is solidified into a homogeneous ribbon. Fourth, carbon is extracted from the ribbon in the form of fiber or fiber precursor. Finally, the metal content of the ribbon is reclaimed and recycled back to the start of the process for further methane decomposition. The project will focus on resolving the materials science challenges of directing carbon crystal growth into fiber and/or fiber precursors (steps 3 and 4). The final goal is to produce fibers that have the strength and stiffness of traditionally produced carbon fiber while requiring a fraction of energy and cost to produce.