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.

Kozarsky is highest on a Lockheed-Martin ( LMT) subsidiary called Applied Nanostructured Solutions , which grows nanotubes onto reinforcing fiber for use in aerospace, and is working with Owens Corning ( OC) on next-generation composites.

Scientists see carbon nanotubes as being at the heart of new solar cells, writes , as components in desalinization systems, as described by the New Jersey Institute of Technology , and useful in electronic parts, as MIT reports, , but most of these applications are years away from industrial-scale production, says Kozarsky.

The industry's problem, Kozarsky feels, is that it focused on production ahead of application. That's a mistake he hopes the graphene industry can avoid.

Think of graphene as a single-sheet nanotube. Discovered by English researchers in 2004, the BBC notes , it holds promise as an electrode or semiconductors, possibly replacing silicon.

The big green promise here lies in batteries, Kozarsky said. It's easily dispersed in a polymer, meaning it can be turned into useful products on an industrial scale fairly easily. "A lot of the applications will be similar," he admits, but if graphene advocates focus on applications instead of supply they will do better in the long run.

Focusing on carbon in terms of coal and oil, burning both to produce carbon dioxide or expelling even more dangerous compounds like methane into the open air, is giving carbon a bad name. The new carbon structures are a fast-growing industry that will restore its good name.

At the time of publication, the author had a position in GE.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.