The carbon fiber reinforcement gives the granite plate an extremely high strength, enabling completely new, efficient construction and materials. Image: A. Battenberg/TUM

In collaboration with fellow researchers, chemists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have developed a process that, according to their initial calculations, can facilitate economically removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by producing carbon fibers.

Algae convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, power plants or steel processing exhaust into algae oil. In a subsequent step, this can then be employed to produce valuable carbon fibers – economically, as an initial analysis shows.

Important technical groundwork was done by Professor Thomas Brück and his team at the Algae Cultivation Center of the Technical University of Munich. The algae investigated at the Center not only produce biofuel, but can also be used efficiently to produce polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fibers. The energy of parabolic solar reflectors then chars the PAN-fibers to yield carbon fibers in a CO2-neutral manner.

Carbon fibers can be deployed to produce lightweight and high-strength materials. At the end of their life cycle, the carbon fibers can be stockpiled in empty coal seams, permanently removing the associated carbon dioxide equivalents from the atmosphere.

Dr. Brück’s colleague Prof. Uwe Arnold and Dipl.-Ing. Kolja Kuse also examined the economic aspects, technical applications and environmental impact of the entire process. “This is a novel, climate-friendly economic model in which we intelligently combine standard processes with innovations,” said Dr. Arnold.

“When you make plastics from carbon dioxide, it is quickly returned to the atmosphere through waste incineration plants following a few years of use,” says Dr. Kuse. “With the final safe storage, we remove the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for millennia. This also makes the process clearly superior to carbon capture and storage (CCS) in the underground.”

Carbon fibers from algae are no different from conventional fibers and can therefore be used in existing processes, say the researchers. Carbon fibers can replace structural steel in construction materials. Thanks to their strength, they save on cement, and granite reinforced with carbon fiber can even be used to produce beams that have the same load-bearing capacity as steel but are as lightweight as aluminum.

The research was funded by the Werner Siemens Foundation and the European Business Council for Sustainable Energy e.V. In addition to the Werner Siemens Chair of Synthetic Biotechnology at the Technical University of Munich, AHP GmbH & Co. KG (Berlin), TechnoCarbonTechnologies GbR (Munich) and the Institute of Textile Technology of RWTH Aachen University participated in the research.

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