Resource Use

New initiative to commercialise continuous carbon fibre reclamation

The National Composites Centre (NCC) has announced the start of a new three-year initiative to industrialise continuous carbon fibre reclamation in the UK.

worker inspecting recycled carbon fibre

NCC aims to commercialise recycling processes previously researched in May, with trials overseen in partnership with B&M Longworth and Cygnet Texkimp. The project now intends to refine and scale these operations, bringing reclaimed continuous carbon fibre to the market.

With the first stage of the project set for completion in November 2022, the centre plans to qualify material performance before it moves to the next stage of industrialisation.

Achieving continuous carbon fibre recycling

By utilising the DEECOM process, a technology from B&M Longworth originally designed to remove waste polymers from filters and production equipment, old carbon fibre materials are broken down for reuse.

The process uses superheated steam under compression to penetrate microscopic fissures in the composite’s polymer, where it then condenses. When decompressed, the material boils and expands, cracking it and carrying away broken particles.

This pressure cycle is repeated to release all material suspended in the fibre, to allow the separate elements to be reclaimed. Able to leave the primary component material intact, any length of material can be retained.

With application in the manufacturing of many technologies, including aircraft, electric vehicles, and hydrogen storage tanks, demand for virgin fibre is set to exceed supply by 2025. The NCC therefore aims to ease supply chain pressures, position the UK at the helm of composites recycling, and help industries in meeting their net-zero goals.

For example, the reclaimed continuous carbon fibre can replace virgin materials used to make sporting goods such as trainers, which, on average, create about 13.6kg of carbon dioxide emissions to manufacture. With its new process, however, the NCC predicts that using reclaimed carbon fibres could reduce material manufacturing emissions from 29.5kg of CO2e per kg to 5kg CO2e.

Further, the project hopes the adoption of second-life materials in supply chains will help businesses remain profitable, as the cost of virgin carbon fibres will increase as supply diminishes, with aerospace and defence organisations taking priority.

The new processes aim to accelerate the creation of three different grades of carbon fibre; Grade A, including continuous fibres of specified length and stiffness, with use in energy, automotive production, and sporting goods; Grade B, for short fibres of specified length and stiffness applicable to automotive, marine, and medical markets; and Grade C, marking damaged fibres usable in chemical processing.

It is expected that these will support a range of commercial applications and reduce the amount of continuous carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) material sent to landfill in the UK by 50 per cent in the next four years.

Currently, methods to recycle carbon fibre can only handle chopped segments and have limited industrial applications. The new continuous carbon fibre strips the NCC aims to industrialise, however, retain higher material performance than traditionally-recycled materials

A six-phase process

Following an initial sprint project, the programme will enter six consecutive phases. Phase one will consult the quality of feedstock of material entering the reclamation process, including auto fibre inspection and understanding how the process can be scaled.

Phase two will then delve into making the process ‘tunable’ to recovering long fibre at rate and for certain characteristics, to then define an energy model for long fibre reclamation. Next, phase three will determine how fibre can be unwinded at rate and how damage in the reclaimed fibres could be identified at a good speed. Phase four looks to characterise the reclaimed fibres, in comparing them to virgin materials and finding their market price point.

Once this is complete, phase five will begin the reformation of recycled fibres, to resize them in a format suitable for commercial use. Completing the process, phase six will focus on formulating a contractual supply of reclaimed fibre to original equipment manufacturers.

In total, these phases aim to seed a supply chain reclaiming continuous carbon fibre. What the partners aim to grasp from this overall process is the potential differences the scale of operation would have on the process, comparing the requirements and productivity of a national recycling centre to that of a fibre manufacturer with an onsite recycling plant, for example.

Enrique Garcia, Chief Technology Officer at the National Composites Centre, said: “Famously, the UK leads the world in the industrialisation of carbon fibre manufacturing but has struggled to develop the sector. We exported much of our expertise – and even our manufacturing infrastructure – to Japan, which was subsequently able to capitalise on huge growth in US defence spending in the 1980s and, later, a boom in consumer demand for high-end carbon fibre products.

“We now have a unique opportunity to drive forward a new market by industrialising the processes required to recycle carbon fibre – it is imperative that we push hard now to establish this capability in the UK.

“We’re looking to rapidly scale up this collaboration and seek partners who would be interested in accelerating product demonstrators using reclaimed continuous fibre in order to rapidly reduce their manufacturing carbon footprint.”