Carbon Fiber: Lightweight, Fuel Saving Material…But Expensive
Carbon fiber has been instrumental in advancing a range of industries through the development of new, strong light-weight materials. It is used in aerospace, sports, automotive and more recently, wind energy equipment. It has served to boost transportation fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet close to 30% of all carbon fiber is wasted as manufacturing scrap. It is expensive to produce and difficult to break down. The scrap must be sent to landfills or incinerated at high heat, incurring even more energy costs.
Now a young company has developed technology to address the issue of carbon fiber waste. Vartega Carbon Fiber Recycling LLC specializes in the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic recycling process. It has developed alternative technology, processes, and equipment to provide low-cost carbon fiber for use in mass market applications.
The company’s objective is to utilize its suite of technology and hardware solutions to divert thousands of tons of high value carbon fiber scrap and waste from landfill and incineration and leverage the recycled product for automotive and aerospace applications where it can improve vehicle fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by millions of pounds each year.
Similar to Virgin Carbon Fiber
Unlike many recycled products and materials, Vartega’s recycled product offers low-cost grade of carbon fiber that has mechanical properties similar to virgin materials. Its recycling process relies on the use of a unique patent pending technology that involves a low-energy, chemistry-based process to free uncured and expired carbon fiber filaments for use in carbon fiber nonwoven fabrics, yarns, thermoplastic pellets, and 3D printing filaments. The recycled fibers can be used in broad a broad range of applications and can be chopped or milled for use in nonwoven fabrics, thermoplastic pellets, yarns, and 3D printing filaments.
Much of the feedstock for Vartega’s process will come from high grade pre-impregnated scrap material, such as that used in the aerospace industry where the scrap rate mirrors the industry rate of 30%. This expensive carbon fiber waste from aerospace structures can be readily repurposed for use in aircraft interiors, automotive structures, wind turbine blades, and sporting goods.
Demand for sustainable recycling
Carbon fiber was developed in the 1950s and 60s as a superior fiber reinforcement due to its excellent tensile strength. The use of carbon fiber composites is accelerating in aerospace and automotive markets as well as in sporting goods, defense, and alternative energy. Market demands have driven improved CFRP production techniques and reduced manufacturing costs. As the cost of raw materials has declined since the early 1970s, demand for the material has grown in an inversely proportional relationship. However, the production costs for the raw material precursors and finished carbon fiber is still quite high: thereby limiting further adoption. For this reason, the market niche for sustainable lower-cost production methods is still considerable.
The company has seen favorable results from its pilot projects with industry partners, and is planning to build a 100-ton/year pilot recycling facility in Washington State in 2017. The state estimates that over 2 million pounds of carbon fiber is sent to landfills in Washington each year.