Quality carbon fibers from fractionated lignin†
The application of lignin carbon fibers was hindered by their low quality and mechanical performance. We addressed this challenge by developing a new approach to fractionate and modify lignin to produce quality carbon fibers using an enzyme-mediator system, which derives lignin fractions with different molecular weights, functional groups, and interunitary linkages. The fractionated lignin in general improves the miscibility and spinnability of lignin. In particular, the insoluble lignin fraction renders carbon fibers with a significantly improved turbostratic carbon structure as revealed by XRD and Raman spectroscopy. The improvement in the carbon structure leads to the significantly improved elastic modulus. The results suggest that higher molecular weights, less –OH groups, and more linear structures may contribute to the improved crystallization and mechanical performance of lignin carbon fibers. The technical breakthrough produces lignin-based carbon fibers with a similar elastic modulus to commercial carbon fibers for the first time, and paves the path for replacing PAN with lignin for producing quality carbon fibers.