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The Green Revolution's Secret Weapon: Carbon

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The carbon energy cycle is killing your grandchildren. But could carbon also form part of the cure?

There are reasons to believe it can. New forms of carbon are coming into industrial production for a host of properties -- low weight, tensile strength, electrical conductivity -- that green energy production is looking for right now.

Three main types of carbon are under discussion:

  • Carbon fiber, literally a thread of carbon bonded in crystals aligned along the long end of the fiber. It's sometimes called graphite fiber or carbon graphite.
  • Carbon nanotubes, huge molecules arranged like a tube with carbon atoms interlocked in a hexagonal frame; and
  • Graphene, the same frame laid in a single plane.

Carbon fiber is furthest along, says Ross Kozarsky, a senior analyst for Lux Research in Boston. Its high cost had, until now, left it isolated in specialty applications like bicycles and jet airplanes, but its cost may fall 50% over this decade, leading to new applications.

Like car bodies. Carbon-fiber car parts are much lighter than metal. If there is hope for cars getting 54 mpg in 2025, the CAFE standard set by the government, it lies in greater use of carbon fiber. Zoltek (ZOLT) is a cost leader in carbon fiber right now, with with products like Pyron.

Right now the most exciting market for carbon fiber lies in wind turbines, where it replaces fiberglass. Efforts to get more of it into cars are hampered, Kozarsky says, by concerns about how much time it takes to make parts using fiber and the problem of recycling smashed carbon fiber bodies remain of concern.

Still, General Electric (GE) uses carbon fiber for wind power turbines, Boeing (BA) and Airbus use it in airplanes, General Motors (GM) is starting to look at it in cars.

By the end of the decade, Kozarsky expects carbon materials to be a $30 billion industry and carbon fiber will represent 85% to 90% of that total. Kozarsky says he is among the more skeptical analysts following the space.

Bigger headlines are being registered for carbon nanotubes and graphene. Both are recent discoveries. The former won a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1996, the latter a Nobel in physics in 2010.

Most nanotubes are used in plastic composites, as Vivek Patel wrote last year in Nanotech Insights, the focus being on the same auto and aerospace industries where carbon fiber is strong.

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