Idea Factory: Carbon Fibers Made from Algae

Algae can reduce greenhouse gases by binding and transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen. The algae oil that is obtained in this process could become the raw material for the production of carbon fibers at some point in the future. 

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In the algae technical facility at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), researchers are experimenting with these water organisms to develop innovative technologies. Algae can be used to produce biofuels, vitamin supplements and medicines.

Now, biotechnology Professor Thomas Brück and his team of scientists have discovered another application: The algae’s rapid growth can bind climate-damaging carbon dioxide and also serve as a particular environmentally-friendly raw material for producing carbon fibers, acrylonitrile, which until now has been produced almost exclusively from crude oil and natural gas.

The Munich method works in several stages. First, green algae transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, power plants or exhaust fumes from the steel industry into algae oil. One of the products derived from this is glycerin, which can be further processed into acrylonitrile. This acrylonitrile can then be used to produce precursor fibers made of polyacrylonitrile (PAN) and, ultimately, carbon fibers, as previous laboratory results from TUM have suggested.

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If there were algae farms worldwide that, taken together, added up to about the size of Algeria, we could theoretically offset the carbon dioxide emissions of the entire airline industry and simultaneously support lightweight construction.

Professor Thomas Brück, Technical University of Munich

“The system for manufacturing algae oil is easy to scale up across large areas,” Professor Brück explains. “If there were algae farms worldwide that, taken together, added up to about the size of Algeria, we could theoretically offset the carbon dioxide emissions of the entire airline industry and simultaneously support lightweight construction.” And there’s another advantage: since saltwater algae thrive best in sunny regions such as North Africa, their cultivation wouldn’t compete with agricultural land use, Brück says.

The developments from the researchers in Munich have met with a positive response. In the "Carbon Green" project funded by the German Federal Government, TU Munich is working with SGL Carbon and other partners on the further development of the technology and its practical application. The World Climate Report also confirms the importance of this method for manufacturing the precursors for carbon fibers and classifies it as globally relevant, although the process is still in its infancy and the methodology has yet to prove itself.

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Head of New Technologies in Central Innovation
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