New Organic Recycling Technology Could Mean Less Plastics, More Jobs

By repurposing a common byproduct of paper mills, researchers hope to create a new US industry.

For several millennia now, the plant kingdom has provided our species with all sorts of helpful things — food, shelter, and tools. Trees have been especially generous, giving us lumber and paper and a million everyday items.

The least we can do is be efficient with these gifts. A new recycling technology out of Texas A&M promises to effectively repurpose mountains of waste material from paper and pulp processing plants, while potentially creating a new American manufacturing industry at the same time.

Research published this week in the journal Green Chemistry, the peer-reviewed journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry, details an improved process for making carbon fiber out of otherwise unused organic waste materials.

Carbon fiber is just that — a mesh of woven filaments made primarily out of carbon atoms. The material has been used since the mid-19th century in many niche markets and is valued for its low weight and high tensile strength. But since the process for making carbon fiber is relatively expensive, the material been largely replaced by synthetic fibers and plastics.

Thanks to a new chemical technique developed at Texas A&M's AgriLife Research labs, mass production of high-quality carbon fiber could become a new American industry.

The star of this particular show is an organic material called lignin, which is present in plants, trees, and algae all over the world. In fact, lignin is one of the most abundant organic polymers on Earth, and is usually encountered as a fibrous material in stems, bark and wood.

According to the Texas A&M researchers, about 50 million tons of lignin piles up each year as waste from the American paper and pulping industry. Millions of tons more are being disposed of in recent years from biorefineries making ethanol from plants. Yet only about two percent of lignin waste is recycled into new products.

The new technique works by separating high-density lignin from the jumble of waste material put out by paper mills and biorefineries. This gives manufacturers a viable way to make high-quality carbon fiber cheaply, said researcher Shuhua Yuan, associate professor of plant pathology and microbiology at Texas A&M.

“Our current carbon fibers are nanofibers and have some unique features,” Yuan said in an email.

“These could be used in tennis rackets, bicycles, cars, or even wind turbines. Carbon fiber is much lighter but has the same mechanical strength as other materials used for those products now. We can also make different types of fiber using other spinning methods.”

RELATED: Tons of Plastic Garbage Found Covering a Remote Island in the South Pacific

There are many upsides to the process, Yuan said. Because the system uses otherwise discarded lignin, raw materials are cheap. Recycling should encourage investment in biorefineries, too, since they will now have a commodity to sell from their byproduct materials.

“When we are able to use the same biomass to produce different things, that allows the best economic return by being sustainable," Yuan said in a statement. “Eventually that would lead to increasing jobs and enhancing rural economic growth.

"And the entire supply chain is in the United States, which means the jobs would be here, too.”

WATCH: What Would a World Without Plastic Look Like?