Dr. Mihaela Banu is a research associate professor in mechanical engineering and Dr. Alan Taub is a professor of materials science & engineering and mechanical engineering and they work together as members of our Global CO2 Initiative Research Team. Learn more about Dr. Banu’s and Dr. Taub’s on how to improve the performance of natural fiber composites for structural applications and how this will utilize nature’s incorporation of CO2 in plants.
Q: What does your research or portfolio currently focus on?
A: We are improving the stiffness and strength of natural fibers that are extracted from plants for subsequent incorporation in structural composites. Today, the vast majority of fibers used for this purpose are made from either glass or carbon fiber. Those materials require high energy content to make into fibers and therefore are CO2 positive. The fibers we are exploring are flax, hemp and bamboo which by their very nature are CO2 negative since the plants absorb CO2 to grow.
Q: What challenges or opportunities is your work trying to address scaling and commercializing carbon management technology and approaches?
A: The research challenge is to improve the mechanical properties of the natural fibers to be competitive for industrial applications. To achieve this we are researching methods of incorporating strengthening materials during both the growth and harvesting of the plants. One of the key challenges is finding an approach that can overcome the inherent variability created by nature in the plants. The goal is to obtain the property improvements while maintaining the cost advantage of the natural fibers.
Q: What real world application or sector(s) do you see your research having the most impact on?
A: Composites offer the ability to produce engineered materials that are stronger and lighter than monolithic materials. This can lead to significant weight reduction in the structural components. Moving goods and people on land, sea and air can benefit from improved fuel economy resulting from weight reduction. For example, a 10% reduction in the weight of automobile results in 6% fuel economy improvement. Using natural fiber composites to obtain the weight reduction not only reduces CO2 by incorporating it during growth of the plants but also reduces the emissions of the vehicle making it highly CO2 negative.
Q: How do students react to your work or this climate mitigation approach in general?
A: Since starting the project, a number of undergraduate and graduate students have approached us to work on the project and we have engaged some of them already. The opportunity to perform research on an environmentally friendly project with real world applications is very attractive.
Q: What advice do you have for technologists or entrepreneurs starting off in this field?
A: The Global CO2 Initiative has established key guidelines for which projects should be supported. First is a life cycle assessment of whether the new technology will truly result in CO2 reduction. Second is a detailed techno-economic assessment of the financial viability of the approach. These two analyses are key for anyone looking to develop and commercialize a new technology in this field.