Money doesn’t grow on trees, but we might soon be able to make carbon fiber from trees. Gerald Tuskan of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Biosciences Division postulates that in 50 years, scientists will be able to make carbon fiber from trees genetically engineered to contain more lignin. To make the venture even more appealing, this method would be carbon neutral.

One-third of a tree’s weight derives from lignin, a fibrous polymer that helps strengthen plant cell walls. “We can melt it and spin it into carbon fibers,” Tuskan says. “For a car, the tree could be deconstructed then reconstructed into the body, frame, interior, and things like that.”

In order for the lignin-based carbon fiber and plastics to apply to a broad range of applications – not just cars – it is necessary to grow trees that yield the right amounts lignin with the right properties for each application. Tuskan and his colleagues have had success isolating genes in perennial poplar trees that control their metabolism. “Depending on what your customer wants, you might vary or modify the molecular weight of the lignin,” Tuskan notes. “Chemical engineers and polymer scientists would work with geneticists and plant breeders to target the right combination of genes.”

This process can not only save money, but the planet. Tuskan thinks there will be a full perennial tree farm industry to meet the demand for the products that poplars can make, which can provide more habitats for animals. Additionally, industries that choose to use trees over petroleum to create their products will also save carbon instead of pumping it into the atmosphere.