The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is funding two projects to develop alternative routes to carbon fiber as detailed in reports here and here. The second beneficiary of the program, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL; Golden, CO) will be funded to the tune of $5.3 million to investigate and optimize multiple pathways to bio-acrylonitrile, a precursor for carbon fiber. The research may also lead to precursors for engineering plastics and other polymeric materials.
NREL's work traces back to an old saying in the biofuels industry: "You can make anything from lignin except money." However, NREL has demonstrated a concept that provides opportunities for the successful conversion of lignin into a variety of materials including precursors for carbon fiber and engineering plastics. A paper entitled "Lignin Valorization Through Integrated Biological Funneling and Chemical Catalysis" was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing the NREL's effort.