High Tech Textiles: UBC researchers develop carbon fibre process sourced from oil sands materials

Photo by UBC Applied Science/Paul Joseph

Vancouver, British Columbia — A research team from the University of British Columbia is currently in the process of weaving together the threads of Canada’s automotive future—literally, as they develop a new carbon fibre process sourced from oil sands materials.

A Monday news release from the university revealed that UBC materials engineering assistant professor Dr. Yasmine Abdin and her collaborators, Dr. Frank Ko and Dr. Scott Renneckar, have successfully woven carbon fibre from bitumen, the scientific name for asphalt, in the pursuit of lighter weight materials for electric vehicles.

“Building a car’s chassis or body with lightweight carbon fibres not only helps to compensate for a heavy EV battery pack, the carbon fibres also enhance a battery’s ability to stay cool, improves passenger safety and extends driving range,” said Dr. Abdin.

One of the main advantages of the process developed by the UBC team is that it eliminates the need to source polyacrylonitrile, an expensive raw material involved in carbon fibre production, and instead makes use of bitumen, a solid form of petroleum found naturally in Alberta’s oil sands regions.

“We are re-purposing what is essentially a low-value product that can cause environmental damage, to produce materials that will enable clean tech,” said Dr. Renneckar.

Dr. Abdin expanded on the potential value this process could create for automakers who choose to make use of it.

“With a price point of $12 per kilogram, high-volume industries like automakers will have the opportunity to use more carbon fibres.

“Currently, composite materials like carbon fibres comprise only about 15 percent of a car’s composition. Affordable carbon fibres can potentially double this figure, which could be a game changer.”

Dr. Abdin’s team has already earned two rounds funding from Alberta Innovates’ Carbon Fibre Grand Challenge, which supports projects to recover oil sands materials, and plans to apply again for the third round.

Only five or six projects will receive the final round of funding and Dr. Abdin’s team is hoping, if chosen, they will be able to begin commercial-scale production with that $4 million investment from Alberta Innovates.

“The world needs more affordable carbon fibre and Alberta’s bitumen is the ideal feedstock,” said associate v-p of clean energy for Alberta Innovates, Bryan Helfenbaum.

“The Carbon Fibre Grand challenge accelerates the development process for manufacturing carbon fibre from Alberta bitumen. Innovators will move closer to commercializing the production of carbon fibre from bitumen by the end of Phase III of this competition.”


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