DESIGN B R I EF
030 SEPTEMBER 2019
BETTER BY NATURE
Carbon fibre has opened up new opportunities to reduce cabin
weight, and in turn to reduce fuel burn and improve the
environmental impact of aviation. Can we look deeper into
carbon fibre production to make the material even ‘greener’?
A recent global climate report (IPCC Special Report on Global
Warming of 1.5°C) considers manufacturing processes which use
more CO2 than they release to be an important factor in climate
change. With this in mind the Technical University of Munich (TUM)
has begun the Green Carbon project to develop innovative
manufacturing processes for carbon-based lightweight materials.
The future, according to TUM, could be based on algae. This may
sound initially improbable, but the German Federal Ministry of
Education and Research has shown its faith in the project with
funding of around €7.1m, with further backers including Airbus
Defence and Space and Daimler AG adding a further €1.8m.
TUM boasts what it describes as a “globally unrivalled” technical
algae centre at its campus. This centre has noted fast growth in its
microalgae, which means it can actively store CO2 in the form of
biomass, which can be used in chemical and biotechnological
processes to produce precursors for industrial processes.
For example, yeast oil can be derived from the algae sugars, and
enzymes can be used to split the yeast oil into glycerine and free
fatty acids, with the glycerine used to produce polyacrylonitrile
(PAN) fibres to yield carbon fibres in a CO2-neutral manner. The
next stage in the project is to combine plastics with carbon fibres
to produce corresponding composite materials.
According to project lead Thomas Brück, professor of synthetic
biotechnology, carbon fibres produced from algae are “absolutely
identical” to the fibres in use today and can be used in aviation.
If Prof Brück’s claims are verified, then the
lightweight carbon fibre structures found in
everything from seats to cabin monuments,
to aircraft fuselages, could become even more
environmentally sound while still being lighter
than aluminium and stronger than steel. As the
manufacturing process extracts more carbon
dioxide than it produces, the technology helps
tackle the problem of atmospheric warming.
The ‘green’ credentials of algae-sourced carbon
fibre don’t end there, as when components and
aircraft reach the end of their service life, the carbon
fibres can be stockpiled in empty coal seams, as
a carbon-neutral means of disposal.
Prof Brück believes the discovery has scope not
just to replace current manufacturing techniques,
but to massively expand them by enabling large-scale
algae plants in southern Europe and North Africa.
“The system is easily scalable to large areas,” says
Brück. “Plants which together would cover the size
of Algeria would offset all CO2 emissions from air