Q&A: Andrew Maxey, Vartega Carbon Fiber Recycling

By Fiona Haran | Assistant Editor - Future Materials, Nonwovens Report International | World Textile Information Network

Vartega Carbon Fiber Recycling LLC is a recycler of advanced materials – specifically strong and lightweight carbon fibre – used in the aerospace, automotive, wind energy, and sporting goods industries. Founded in July 2014, Vartega has developed patent-pending recycling technology to address the 15,000 metric tons of carbon fibre waste that is being landfilled and incinerated every year. Here, the company’s president, Andrew Maxey, tells WTiN about how it targets nonwoven applications.

How does your company convert recycled carbon fibre into nonwovens?

We take uncured prepreg manufacturing scrap from large waste generators and free the fibre using our novel solvolysis technique. By using chemistry, we’re able to recycle this material using a fraction of the energy required to manufacture virgin carbon fibre. We’re also forecasting associated cost savings of 40-50% versus virgin carbon fibre.

Vartega has identified partners to convert this recycled dry fibre into thermoplastic pellets and nonwoven intermediate materials. There are several converters that have existing operations but struggle to have enough dry fibre to meet demand for their nonwoven products. We can supply these producers with dry fibre which will then be converted into wet-laid or carded nonwovens.

What sort of production equipment do you have in place?

Vartega has developed lab scale recycling equipment capable of producing samples for conversion to nonwoven handsheets. Larger equipment is being implemented to create greater volumes of recycled fibre for pilot scale nonwovens manufacturing by our partners. Vartega’s pilot facility, capable of creating 100 metric tonnes per year of recycled carbon fibre, is also in development.

In what nonwoven application areas are we seeing recycled carbon fibre being used the most?

Automotive, aerospace, and the marine industries are suitable applications for recycled carbon fibre nonwovens. Specifically, lightweight body panels and structural components for automobiles help to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. Aircraft interiors are also appropriate applications for incorporating lightweight materials to improve efficiency. These applications can all benefit from low-cost recycled materials. Low-cost is especially important for use in mass market vehicle programs that exceed 100,000 units per year. Vartega is working with manufacturers and suppliers to research alternative methods of utilising nonwovens to reduce cycle time and costs for these applications.

The recycling process is favoured for reducing the amount of production waste, but what other advantages does it offer?

On average, 30% of the raw material carbon fibre prepreg ends up as manufacturing scrap that is either sent to landfill or incinerated. This results in approximately 15,000 metric tonnes of waste with an estimated lost value of US$630m each year.

Vartega’s pilot facility is capable of creating 100 metric tonnes per year of recycled carbon fibre

Vartega’s pilot facility is capable of creating 100 metric tonnes per year of recycled carbon fibre

Recycling offers a diversion from landfill that creates a low-cost alternative to virgin carbon fibre. For every 1 kg of virgin carbon fibre offset through recycling, Vartega estimates 3 kg of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas will be saved. By replacing 1.5 kg of steel with 1 kg of recycled carbon fibre, an additional 15 kg of carbon dioxide greenhouse gas can be saved over the life of a vehicle.

The benefits of carbon fibre recycling are also demonstrated through reduced waste handling costs, improved corporate sustainability, and increased compliance with stringent waste handling regulation.

Does recycled carbon fibre improve the properties of a nonwoven?

Recycled carbon fibre has very similar properties to virgin carbon fibre, and in nonwoven applications, the mechanical properties may be indiscernible. The recycling process typically removes the sizing material from the carbon fibre. In certain applications unsized fibre is preferred.

What are the main challenges you face in the recycling process?

The main challenge currently facing carbon fibre recycling is a lack of certifications and standards for the recycled material. Specifying engineers rely on standards to define material properties when designing intermediate materials and finished goods. The industry is addressing this problem by convening collaborative recycling consortia and deploying resources through standardisation organisations to create common testing criteria and standards for recycled materials. As this challenge is addressed it will become easier to specify recycled materials, product implementation will increase, market demand will grow, competition will emerge, and further development will take place.

Do you have any plans to develop your recycling technology further?

Vartega has plans to scale its technology and address new markets and geographies. The Vartega solvolysis process is modular and scalable, so capital can be deployed relative to market demand. Facilities will be located near major waste generators.

Vartega is also evaluating value-added manufacturing processes to improve recycling economics and create new products that address evolving market needs. Additional research and development will be dedicated to addressing end-of-life carbon fibre recycling.