Carbon-fibre may have plenty of allure, but the strong and light material is also expensive to produce. It’s made from a chemical called acrylonitrile, which is produced from a mix of oil, ammonia, oxygen and an expensive catalyst. The need for petroleum in its production means its cost is tied very much to oil prices, which are variable.

That may soon change. According to a report by NexusMedia, scientists are looking into developing acrylonitrile utilising plant-based sources, in a move to drive down production costs of carbon-fibre as well as reduce levels of excess heat and eliminate toxic by-products, something the current process introduces in production.

Researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in the United States have developed a new process that develops acrylonitrile utilising plants, specifically from inedible parts such as corn stalks and wheat straw. The team broke these materials down into sugars and converted these into an acid, which was then combined with an inexpensive catalyst to produce acrylonitrile.

The NREL scientists believe the plant-based process can be scaled up and used in manufacturing, providing a new feedstock from which to make acrylonitrile, effectively making the production of carbon-fibre cheaper.

The laboratory says it is working with several firms to produce a large quantity of acrylonitrile that will be turned into carbon-fibre and tested for use in automobiles, but adds that more fundamental research is still going on.