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A team of University of Tennessee researchers, funded by a $350,000 federal contract, hopes to develop agricultural residue into strong, lightweight composite materials appropriate for use in cars and other vehicles.

Dr. John Collier, head of UT’s chemical engineering department, heads the three-member team working to form the foundation for a new generation of low-cost carbon fibers from cellulose, which is now considered agricultural waste.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation are funding the project. Joining Collier in the research are Dr. Timothy Rials, professor and director of the Tennessee Forest Products Center at UT, and Dr. Simioan Petrovan, research associate professor of chemical engineering.

Carbon fibers currently are used in airplanes, satellites, sporting goods and other products where strength and weight are prime concerns. Collier said the carbon fibers they hope to develop from agricultural products should be strong enough to be used in vehicular applications.

“The process is also planned to be more environmentally friendly than current processes and will further reduce the cost of carbon fibers,” Collier said. “The lower-cost fibers will be utilized in the fabrication of lighter composites for use in vehicles, which will result in lower fuel consumption and related automotive emissions.”

Dr. Way Kuo, dean of UT’s College of Engineering, said the project is an excellent example of interdepartmental research.

“This research has positive long-term implications for both the environment and the automotive industry and is evidence of the value of inter-departmental collaboration,” Kuo said.