Could we make cars out of petroleum residue?
Lightweight, high performance materials made from carbon fiber combine exceptional strength with low weight, but these have been more expensive to produce than comparable structural elements made of steel or aluminum.
A research team led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a new way to make carbon fiber could turn refinery byproducts into high-value, ultralight structural materials for cars, aircraft, and spacecraft.
The researchers used the heavy, pitch-like waste material left over from the refining of petroleum consisting of mixed heavy hydrocarbons, material that refineries today supply for low-value applications such as asphalt, or eventually treat as waste. The inherent value of these products is very low, so then it is often landfilled.
Not only is the new carbon fiber cheap to make, but it offers advantages over the traditional carbon fiber materials because it can have compressional strength, meaning it could be used for load-bearing applications.
In addition, it prevents the pitch residue from ending up in a landfill, which is an important environmental benefit.
The study was published on March 18, 2022 in the journal Science Advances, in a paper ‘Atoms to fibers: Identifying novel processing methods in the synthesis of pitch-based carbon fibers’ by graduate student Asmita Jana, research scientist Nicola Ferralis, professor Jeffrey Grossman, and five others at MIT, Western Research Institute in Wyoming, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. The work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy.