Composites Recycling Gains Momentum
On the last day of CAMX 2016, the show ended with a panel of students and young leaders who offered insights into the future of the composites industry. Perhaps one of the most interesting takeaways from that panel was the emphasis placed on the importance of composites recycling.
“Twenty years from now, I really do hope we have a robust recycling system in place like familiar plastics and metals do right now,” Hardin said. “That’s why they have a major leg up on composite materials at this point. Finding out a labeling system and how to collect that material and having a database out there presents a great opportunity for industry collaboration.”
The industry isn’t quite there yet, but it’s getting there slowly but surely. In all corners of the world, businesses are developing and investing in novel recycling technology and establishing the business case for both carbon fiber and glass fiber composite recycling. All are working toward answering the million dollar question: How can we make recycling composites profitable?
Currently, IACMI-The Composites Institute is reviewing ACMA’s proposal to study and test CHZ Technologies’ ThermolyzerTM technology, which recycles all liquids, tars and oils from composite materials and converts them into clean synthetic gases. By working with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), ACMA learned that industries like rubber find profit through recycling by separating their various elements. Pilpel says the composites industry can draw inspiration from rubber companies who separate the two main components of tires: the nylon core and steel cords. In FRP, the two main components you can separate are the fiber and the polymer matrix.
By approaching recycling that way, ACMA was left with a tough question: How can you make the materials attractive to an end user? The answer, according to ISRI, was to look at energy conversion as the baseline technology of recycling. That means if the supply chain can’t find value in the glass fiber itself, perhaps businesses can sell the fuel byproduct that comes from it instead.
One of the most promising markets for composites recycling is automotive. According to Recycling International magazine, about 10 percent of the CFRP used in BMW i series vehicles is recycled material. Toyota Europe adds that by European Union law, all new vehicles in Europe have to be 85 percent reusable or recyclable (by mass) and 95 percent recoverable. In Germany, landfilling is already prohibited, adding to industry’s urgency to reclaim as much carbon fiber as possible. Barnes says that recycling gives the automotive industry a stable supply chain, low cost carbon fiber (less than $5-7 per pound) as well as 90 percent less global warming impact than virgin carbon fiber.
Recycling carbon fiber could also revolutionize the way cars are made. Last year, U.K.-based ELG Carbon Fibre collaborated with Gordon Murray Design in the development of iStream® – the world’s first affordable high-volume carbon fiber chassis. The iStream has a hybrid structural composite chassis comprising 14 composite structural panels made from Carbiso™ M, ELG’s signature line of carbon fiber nonwoven mats. Barnes says a project of that magnitude would not have been possible without close collaboration.
ELG’s next step is to set up its first composites recycling center in the United States within the next few years. To facilitate that goal, ELG became a member of IACMI and signed a memorandum of understanding with the institute’s west coast strategic partner – Port Angeles, Wash.-based Composites Recycling Technology Center (CRTC).
Opened in 2015, the CRTC is the world’s first facility for product development from recycled carbon fiber prepreg. The CRTC’s goal is to recycle 1 million pounds of carbon fiber per year by 2022. It has drawn attention throughout the past year for making recycled carbon fiber paddles for a rapidly-growing sport called pickleball. The sport, invented in 1965, combines elements of badminton, tennis and table tennis. In December 2016, CRTC signed an exclusive distribution agreement with Pickleball Central to distribute the very first pickleball paddle made with recycled aerospace-grade carbon fiber.
Aerospace represents another area of opportunity for recycled carbon fiber, particular in the state of Washington, where 2 million pounds of production waste carbon fiber is sent to a landfill each year. Recently, a team of researchers from Washington State University (WSU) has developed a method to recycle carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) composites that strays from traditional approaches. The researchers’ method does what only a handful have been able to accomplish: recycling epoxy-based thermoset composites.
For more information on the state of composites recycling, make sure to check out this year’s list of CAMX education sessions, which will be announced shortly.
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Test your composites knowledge and compete with other teams to win cash prizes of $500. Join us on Wednesday, September 13th as the 2nd Annual CAMX Race takes place in the Exhibit Hall. You’ll have two hours to visit exhibitor booths and answer challenge questions, and learn about the different companies that make up the industry. The team with the most answers correct in the shortest amount of time wins cold, hard cash. Sign up during your registration process, or contact Mutsa Meda for more information. Find additional details here.
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