A new research project aims to employ renewables instead of petroleum in producing acrylic fibers used for everything from textiles to automobiles. The Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) hopes to use a novel catalytic method to produce renewable acrylonitrile using 3-hydroxypropionic acid (3-HP), which can be biologically produced from sugars.
Acrylonitrile, a petroleum-derived commodity chemical, is one of the most widely used monomers in the chemical industry with many commercial applications. Today, acrylonitrile is used in the production of acrylic fibers for carpets, clothes, and fabrics, and in plastics such as food containers, and packaging materials. Most importantly for this project, acrylonitrile is also the primary building block in carbon fiber composites, which are used for lightweighting applications in automotive and air transportation. Acrylonitrile is produced today industrially via an energy-intensive and chemically hazardous process.
NREL says its approach could make this manufacturing process safer, more economical and more environmentally friendly. Researchers were able to achieve a 98 percent yield of acrylonitrile using a new, robust catalytic process. In comparison, after six decades of commercial-scale improvements and optimization, the traditional acrylonitrile production process achieves yields of approximately 80 to 83 percent.
“The high acrylonitrile yield allows us to propose a potential industrial process for the conversion of lignocellulosic biomass to renewable acrylonitrile and carbon fibers,” said Gregg Beckham, group leader at NREL. “Historically, acrylonitrile prices have been volatile due to ties to propylene prices. This alternative manufacturing process, one that relies on renewably sourced feedstocks, could help stabilize acrylonitrile prices and lead to broader market adoption of carbon fiber-based materials. This is an important step forward for ‘lightweighting’ transportation applications, thus creating significant cost savings for transportation, as well as reducing our impact on the environment.”
In addition to the high yields, this new approach has multiple benefits over the current petroleum-based acrylonitrile production process. The new process eliminates production of hydrogen cyanide – a toxic side product – uses a simpler and less expensive catalyst, and could be done in a simpler reactor configuration. Moreover, this new high-yield process can utilize non-food biomass, such as agricultural wastes, as a feedstock instead of propylene.
“We are excited about the prospects of this new chemistry for acrylonitrile production to ultimately enable the production of renewably sourced carbon fibers,” said NREL Associate Laboratory Director Adam Bratis, who is also principal investigator of the NREL-led Renewable Carbon Fiber Consortium. The research is the result of an interdisciplinary collaboration of researchers across chemical engineering, biology, and computational modeling, as well as contributors from the University of Colorado-Boulder, Johnson Matthey, and the Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center.
NREL estimates the new process could put the selling price of biomass-derived acrylonitrile below $1 per pound from cellulosic biomass or starch-based sugars. A $1 per pound target was deemed necessary for cost competitiveness with conventionally produced acrylonitrile.
Driven in part by the interest in using carbon fiber for lightweighting vehicles and aircraft that will save money on fuel costs, the demand for carbon fibers is projected to increase 11 percent to 18 percent annually, researchers say. And given that the carbon fiber industry is especially sensitive to price fluctuations in its base chemical acrylonitrile (it takes roughly 2 pounds of acrylonitrile to generate 1 pound of carbon fiber), there is a clear need to develop alternative cost-competitive processes. In the past, propylene price volatility and environmental sustainability within composites production have motivated the search for alternative approaches to propylene ammoxidation to produce acrylonitrile. With the process described in this work, NREL researchers are one step closer to this goal.
The work, reported in Science,was funded by the Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office. An international patent application has been filed on this research, and the NREL Technology Transfer Office will be working with researchers to identify potential licensees of the technology.