A small team of government scientists looking for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector had what one member called an "Oh, my gosh" moment. They recently stumbled across a potential breakthrough in a research paper that had been buried in a library for more than a century.

The paper described an alternate chemistry that can be used to make carbon fiber, a lighter material than steel that is starting to be used when making car bodies. The century-old discovery reveals a cheaper way of making carbon fiber using sugar from agricultural wastes, like corn stalks and wheat straw, instead of oil and gas derivatives.

"We went, 'Oh, my gosh,'" recalled Eric Karp, a chemical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Boulder, Colo. "This is exactly what we need."

With what Karp calls a "slight modification," the chemistry in the paper, written by two professors from Johns Hopkins University for the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 1916, beat out five other approaches examined by the five-member NREL research team. It made a small batch of carbon fiber using the forgotten technique.

Now a consortium of companies featuring Cargill Inc., Ford Motor Co. and British catalyst maker Johnson Matthey are working with NREL to scale up the process. They want to see if the resulting carbon fiber composites will match the strong, plasticlike material currently being introduced in new car bodies, airliners and pickup trucks.

Gregg Beckham, another member of the NREL research team, says "the fun part" of finding the plant-based process is that it avoids hazards like toxic byproducts, the use of expensive catalysts, and unpredictable gyrations in the world prices for oil and natural gas.

The NREL process uses engineered bacteria to stimulate fermentation, resulting in a fiber that, when woven, treated with resin and heated, can be molded into a variety of shapes for parts that are being used to lighten vehicles. That's where the potential impact on greenhouse gas emissions looms largest, explained Karp.

"Think of how far a car would go with the gas mileage you could get," he said. "You're looking at 60 mpg for the average car on the road with existing engine technology."

The fundamentals seem simple. Fuel efficiency goes up as weight goes down. But for years, the uses for carbon fiber have been held back by its steep price — it's much higher per pound than aluminum and steel. Its first applications came in space satellites and jet fighters, where lightness was prized and material prices were small factors.

In 2009, Boeing Co. launched the 787 Dreamliner, a passenger aircraft with an airframe whose materials consist of about 50 percent carbon fiber and other lightweight composite, Boeing says. That cut maintenance, reduced metal fatigue and dropped fuel costs by 20 percent, according to the aircraft maker.

Since then, car manufacturers have begun using carbon fiber to reduce the weight of sports cars, a move that gives the pricey vehicles faster acceleration. Lamborghini, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari have models that include carbon fiber body parts.

Not to be outdone, Ford has launched a GT "Carbon Series" sports car containing more of the lightweight material than any of its previous products. The model even includes an exposed strip of carbon fiber running along the center of the car so buyers can see what they're paying for.

General Motors has taken the next step by using carbon fiber parts in its top-of-the-line Sierra Denali pickup truck. The "CarbonPro," expected next year, boasts a carbon fiber truck bed, a change that has removed 62 pounds of weight from the truck.

In the world of pickup trucks, it's toughness, not acceleration, that lures most customers into showrooms. "In 116 years of making GMC pickup trucks, our industry-first carbon fiber box is the toughest pickup box we have ever made," Duncan Aldred, vice president of GMC Global, noted in announcing the new model.

This is just the beginning, asserts Amory Lovins, an energy efficiency guru and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Basalt, Colo. He inspired the "Hypercar," a concept electric car, in 1991. It has a carbon fiber body that showed manufacturers how to eliminate as much as two-thirds of a conventional car's weight.

According to Lovins, at least seven major automakers have since made alliances with carbon fiber manufacturers and are at various stages of "lightweighting." If the price of carbon fiber goes down, there is likely to be a "stampede" for more of it, he said.

So far it has been a fashionable "niche product," he explained, noting that the price of carbon fiber has dropped from around $8 a pound two years ago to a little more than $5. That should increase demand.

Weight loss stands to improve the economics for electric cars because it reduces the need for large, heavy batteries. "That helps pay for the carbon fiber," Lovins said.

"This is more revolutionary than meets the eye," he added, explaining that steel remains cheap, but as much as 85 percent of its cost comes from machining parts to the right shape. Carbon fiber composites, on the other hand, can be fabricated in a precise way that he says resembles 3D printing.

Meanwhile, auto manufacturers in China and India have become more interested in lightweighting.

"They want to become first adopters, and their level of ambition is very high," Lovins said. If the NREL process makes carbon fiber cheaper, "it means a seriously accelerated and enlarged threat to the auto, oil and steel industries."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.