We haven’t been paying much attention to a acrylonitrile lately, or come to think of it ever at all, but when we heard that the Energy Department has just awarded $11 million in R&D grants to manufacture this colorless liquid petrochemical from biomass we figured it must be pretty important.
Well, it is. If the US is going to kick a carbon-neutral economy into high gear, acrylonitrile is going to play a key role. Aside from some pesky toxicity issues, this petroleum-derived chemical is a feedstock for the kind of high performance, lightweight carbon fiber that goes into wind turbine blades, flywheels, and electric vehicles such as that BMW i3 we were just talking about.
Acrylonitrile To The Rescue!
The Energy Department’s bio-acrylonitrile funding announcement was a little short on detail when it came to discussing just what kinds of biomass would be suitable as a cost-effective substitute for petroleum products, but we’ll take a stab at it.
We’re thinking that glycerol is on the list, mainly because glycerol (aka glycerine or glycerin) is on other peoples’ bio-acrylonitrile list.
That would make for a nifty green twofer. Crude glycerol is a major byproduct of biodiesel production, and as biodiesel production rises the world has been scrambling to come up with efficient ways to deal with the resulting global glycerol glut.
However, perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. For now, the Energy Department refers vaguely to “agricultural residues,” “woody biomass,” and other non-food feedstocks.
$11 Million For Bio-Acrylonitrile
It seems that we weren’t the only ones sleeping on the acrylonitrile job. Back in 2004 the Energy Department analyzed the most promising high value petrochemicals for conversion to biomass production, and acrylonitrile didn’t even crack the top 30 (ironically, petroleum-derived glycerol made it in there).
A number of things have changed since then, including the emergence of next-generation, non-food biomass crops and the increasing demand to replace steel with high grade carbon fiber in the auto and wind industries.
The new DOE grant is being split between two institutions, and both have been tasked to produce bio-acrylonitrile for less than $1.00 per pound.
The Southern Research Institute gets $5.9 million for continuing its work on a “multi-step catalytic process,” and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory gets $5.3 million to explore a number of different bio-acrylonitrile production options.
Bio-Acrylonitrile = More Green Jobs
The push for non-petroleum acrylonitrile also has a green jobs angle. The new grant falls under the Obama Administration’s Clean Manufacturing Initiative (CMI), which is a strategic effort to nudge the US manufacturing sector in the direction of exporting technology.
We’ve been talking about the emerging global paradigm of exporting energy harvesting tech (think wind turbines, geothermal systems, microgrids, solar cells) rather than shipping massive quantities of fossil fuels around the globe. Here’s how the folks at CMI see their mission:
The United States faces a stark choice: the energy technologies of the future can be developed and manufactured in America for export around the world, or we can cede global leadership and import those technologies from China, Germany and elsewhere.
With continued demand for carbon fiber in the global forecast, it looks like that $11 million investment buy us taxpayers could pay off big time for US manufacturing jobs.
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