Cleantech News carbon fiber from bio acrylonitrile

Published on July 31st, 2014 | by Tina Casey


DOE Offers Up $11 Million For Bio-Acrylonitrile – What Is That Stuff, Anyways?

July 31st, 2014 by  

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.

carbon fiber from bio acrylonitrile

Image: Mohd Althani

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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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

  • jeffhre

    Petroleum may seem like a reasonable source of acrylonitrile, once people decide that constantly burning billions of barrels of it may not be such a great use of resources.

  • JamesWimberley

    “Energy harvesting” usually refers to a quite different technology of very tiny devices powering themselves from ambient sources (vibration, radio waves, etc).

    YMMV but I’m allergic to the flag-waving rhetoric of technology “leadership”. (We Brits are just as bad.) Germany supports technology very effectively though Fraunhofer, but understandably avoids any suggestion of pursuing Herrentechnik. What’s wrong with importing good technology – the Walkman, HTML or the BYD bus? The thing is to have something of your own to trade for it. Correct that, HTML was free, paid for by European taxpayers, as a byproduct of particle physics accelerators at CERN in Geneva.

    • Rick Kargaard

      Give the credit for HTML to Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He recognized the need while working at CERN. Notice, I used an American spelling, although I am Canadian.
      One must realize that much American policy reflects the need to reduce future dependency on foreign oil.
      There is nothing wrong with importing good tehnology, unless it could be a strategic material, and conflict is seen as inevitable

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