Carbon fiber is awesome stuff, being both lightweight and strong. It's also a difficult-to-produce, non-renewable material. But for over a decade two material scientists from Scotland, David Hepworth and Eric Whale, have been working on a natural alternative made from, believe it or not, carrots.
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To be clear, Hepworth and Whale's discovery will not replace what we think of as carbon fiber—which is actually carbon fibers that have been bonded with polymers—altogether. The new material, known as Curran, still requires the polymers to form it into a cohesive material. But the nanofibers that Curran is made from are not only lighter and stronger than the carbon stuff, but are extracted from the much more renewable source of carrot pulp and other root vegetables.
Hepworth and Whale's company, CelluComp, has already commercialized Carrot Stix, a line of fishing rods, made with Curran. They've been selling them since 2007 and have reportedly moved over half a million units.
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Currently the company is focusing on integrating Curran into paints and coatings, as it can add durability and structural properties to those materials while replacing those nasty off-gassing VOCs. As for applications in 3D product designs beyond fishing rods, CelluComp hired an organization called EMPA (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology) to find ideal uses for Curran. According to Smithsonian Magazine, EMPA's research indicates "that the smartest, most ecologically responsible use for the nanofibers…was for protective sporting goods, in particular motorcycle helmets which have to be both strong and light."
In their analysis, EMPA found that protective sporting goods, which need stiff, strong, light fibers and low economic overhead, were some of the best use cases for Curran. [EMPA researcher Roland] Hischier and his team are also looking at the viability of using it in surfboards and insulation for mobile homes. The challenge now is taking the material from the lab to production, and making sure that it's still ecologically smart on a grander scale.
With any luck, the studies will pan out and the material will…take root. Because the most exciting thing about Curran isn't necessarily what it can do, but where it comes from. As CelluComp states,
Curran is manufactured from waste streams produced by the food processing industry. Common raw materials are carrots or sugar beet and, because only materials otherwise discarded by the food industry are used, it does not compete with food crops for scarce land. CelluComp is working with major players in the food processing industry to optimise use of vegetable waste.
Here's a look at what the company does: