Carbon fibres from lignin-cellulose precursors
Abstract: It is in the nature of the human species to find solutions of complex technical problems and always strive for improvements. The development of new materials is not an exception. One of the many man-made materials is carbon fibre (CF). Its excellent mechanical properties and low density have made it attractive as the reinforcing agent in lightweight composites. However, the high price of CF originating from expensive production is currently limiting CF from wider utilisation, e.g. in the automotive sector. The dominating raw material used in CF production is petroleum-based polyacrylonitrile (PAN). The usage of fossil-based precursors and the high price of CF explain the strong driving force of finding cheaper and renewable alternatives. Lignin and cellulose are renewable macromolecules available in high quantities. The high carbon content of lignin is an excellent property, while its structural heterogeneity yields in CF with poor mechanical properties. In contrast, cellulose has a beneficial molecular orientation, while its low carbon content gives a low processing yield and thus elevates processing costs. This work shows that several challenges associated with CF processing of each macromolecule can be mastered by co-processing. Dry-jet wet spun precursor fibres (PFs) made of blends of softwood kraft lignin and kraft pulps were converted into CF. The corresponding CFs demonstrated significant improvement in processing yield with negligible loss in mechanical properties relative to cellulose-derived CFs. Unfractionated softwood kraft lignin and paper grade kraft pulp performed as good as more expensive retentate lignins and dissolving grade kraft pulp, which is beneficial from an economic point of view. The stabilisation stage is considered the most time-consuming step in CF manufacturing. Here it was shown that the PFs could be oxidatively stabilised in less than 2 h or instantly carbonised without any fibre fusion, suggesting a time-efficient processing route. It was demonstrated that PF impregnation with ammonium dihydrogen phosphate significantly improves the yield but at the expense of mechanical properties. A reduction in fibre diameter was beneficial for the mechanical properties of the CFs made from unfractionated softwood kraft lignin and paper grade kraft pulp. Short oxidative stabilisation (<2 h) of thin PFs ultimately provided CFs with tensile modulus and strength of 76 GPa and 1070 MPa, respectively. Considering the high yield (39 wt%), short stabilisation time and promising mechanical properties, the concept of preparing CF from lignin:cellulose blends is a very promising route.
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