The US Department of Energy has pledged up to $12 million in funding to advance the production of carbon fiber materials from renewable non-food-based feedstocks such as agricultural residues and woody biomass.

Carbon fiber derived from biomass may be less costly to manufacture and offer greater environmental benefits than traditional carbon fiber produced from natural gas or petroleum, the DOE says.

Carbon fiber is a strong, lightweight material that can replace steel and other heavier metals to lower the cost and improve performance of many technologies, including fuel-efficient vehicles and renewable energy systems. For example, by investing in lightweight carbon fiber materials for vehicles, the DOE is helping US manufacturers reduce vehicle weight to improve fuel efficiency. Reducing a vehicle’s weight by just 10 percent can improve fuel economy by 6 percent to 8 percent.

Last month the DOE made available about $50 million to accelerate research and development of new vehicle technologies that further cut fuel costs for drivers and help make vehicles more efficient and durable, including lightweighting materials.

In addition to its uses in fuel-efficient vehicles, carbon fiber can also improve other clean energy technologies including wind turbine blades, pressurized hydrogen storage vessels for fuel cells and insulation materials for energy efficient buildings.

However, a number of challenges — including supply chain, security, regional supply and competitive biofuel uses — stand in the way to making bio-based carbon fiber.

The DOE intends to support projects that identify and develop a cost-competitive technology pathway to produce high-performance carbon fibers from renewable biomass.

The wind, aerospace, construction and mass transit industries are using more large lightweight structures, a trend that bodes well for the lightweight composites market such as carbon fiber if further material and manufacturing advancements can be made, according to analysis published this week by Frost & Sullivan.