The same but different: EU researchers look for 'green' carbon fibres
Super-strong threads of carbon atoms - known as nanofibres - promise a new generation of exceptional materials. When added to another material, the fibres bring an exciting combination of flexibility, strength, light weight and electrical conductivity. But while carbon fibres like these are finding a market in high-spec aeroplanes like the Airbus 320, high cost limit their wider adoption.
With 20 years experience in carbon materials research, Professor Costas Charitidis of the National Technical University of Athens in Greece is bringing an engineering approach to the science of carbon fibres in an effort to make them cheaper, greener and more sustainable.
He is coordinating two EU-funded research projects: the FP7 FIBRALSPEC, which is developing novel starting materials for carbon fibres from sustainable sources; and in parallel, the Horizon 2020 project, MODCOMP, which will build on the expertise gained in FIBRALSPEC to create nanofibres a fraction of the diameter of a human hair with different functions for flexible electronic devices.
With the same material at heart, but a slightly different approach, Costas Charitidis and researcher Dr Elias Koumoulos will take carbon fibres to a new dimension.
What do you hope to achieve with these projects?
Both these projects deal with the use of carbon fibres in innovative materials with enhanced properties. Reducing the cost of both processing and raw materials is our main aims.
With FIBRALSPEC we want to produce carbon fibres from ‘green’ raw materials and manufacture composites incorporating our fibres using environmentally friendly techniques. Specifically, we want to replace existing carbon fibre precursors with low-cost raw materials such as lignin or cellulose from sustainable sources of wood or cotton.
Building on this, MODCOMP aims to develop novel materials based on these fibres for high-tech, high-value, high-performance products at a realistic cost, with improved function and safety. We plan to demonstrate the feasibility of scaling up our processes to industrial levels for the transport, construction, leisure and electronics sectors. As well as carbon fibres with enhanced mechanical, electrical and thermal properties, for example, we will also look at recycling and safety issues.
These two projects are totally different but have the same material at their core.
How and why did you become interested in this area?
Having worked in the area of carbon-based materials and composites for almost 20 years, when I moved from a more scientifically focused university to a more technical one, I started to think more as an engineer than a scientist.
Carbon materials, because they are at the edge of technology, are a promising host for new ideas. But it was really challenging for us to see the engineering aspect of the problem: the design, production, maintenance and repair of materials.
How did you get involved in the projects and find your partners?
Previous experience of collaboration with European partners in various research fields for more than 15 years provided the starting point. We now have a team of 25 young engineers and scientists working in the area – which is a hidden benefit of such projects. We have started to make a new kind of tradition: in educational and technological terms. It will now be easier for the next generation to build on it.
What issues do you want the projects to tackle?
In the first place, because we care about carbon dioxide emissions, we want to replace petroleum-based raw materials with greener alternatives. In both projects, we have undertaken lifecycle analysis from the beginning to the end. We always have an eye on emissions, environmental impact and footprint right from the first day of the project.
What impact do you hope these projects will have?
We want to break into the carbon fibre market, which is a real challenge for us. We want to push Europe towards industrial leadership and competitiveness in strategic areas such as electronics, aerospace, construction, sports and leisure.
MODCOMP’s main contribution to economic growth will be through the generation of knowledge in the development of novel fibre-based, high-performance, affordable components with improved function. The development of materials and processes for large-scale, cost-effective and safe production of advanced composites could position Europe at the forefront of the supply chain. These multi-functional materials are expected to have great significance in the market.
What have you achieved so far?
In FIBRALSPEC, we are making good progress towards our objectives. We have developed green precursors of carbon fibres based on lignin. We have reduced the cost of production and, with project partner Thales, have used our carbon nanofibres in energy storage devices called supercapacitors.
MODCOMP is in a very early stage having started just two months ago, but the consortium has already set up protocols and identified state-of-the-art techniques, materials and processes, always with safety and sustainability in mind. It is a great advantage that MODCOMP is kind of continuation of FIBRALSPEC, in terms of the idea and the partnership, but with different aims and objectives.
What has been the most exciting aspect of the projects for you?
As a carbon scientist, reducing cost of these materials and broadening their application poses many scientific and technological challenges. It is the ultimate exercise to see how far we can go in resolving these issues.
What new skills have you, as an individual, acquired during the process?
Participation in EU projects definitely contributes to the acquisition of management and communication skills. A successful project is based on effective knowledge and information exchange between different partners and the best way to achieve this is through well-organized leadership.
What are the benefits of being part of an EU project?
EU projects bring together industries, research organizations and SMEs from across the region to tackle technological challenges in synergy, maximizing the impact. The collaboration between different European organizations can achieve more than would otherwise be possible, notably in driving scientific excellence, contributing to competitiveness and solving societal challenges. It allows us to take advantage of expertise wherever it is available.
In MODCOMP, for instance, we are bringing together different cultural backgrounds as well as interdisciplinary skills and know-how. While there are day-to-day difficulties in any project, it is like an extended family and we take something positive from each other. This is the European way!
Overall, the outcomes are relevant to our everyday lives by creating jobs, introducing novel technologies and making our existence more comfortable.
What are your key ingredients for a successful project?
There are several. While there is no specific recipe for success, there are some tricks that make it more likely. The first is effective communication, which helps implement a project more smoothly. Combined with a strong consortium, with a good track record in the field, highly motivated SMEs and industrial partners that are ready to adopt new technologies, the path to a successful project is open. But there is always risk – that is part of the game – you have to deal with it!
A project is like a marriage: you are joined to several partners for at least three or four years! Trust and shared responsibilities between partners are very important. Just like life!
Would you take part in another EU project?
Of course! Participation in an EU project offers many opportunities, such as broadening your scientific expertise through cooperation with other research institutes and universities. It provides the opportunity to cooperate with industrial partners and share knowledge on market needs and the most direct way to transfer lab-scale production into large-scale, cost-effective processes.