New initiative to commercialise continuous carbon fibre reclamation

The National Composites Center (NCC) has announced the launch of a new three-year initiative to industrialize continuous carbon fiber recovery in the UK.

Worker inspecting recycled carbon fiber

NCC is aiming to commercialize recycling processes explored back in May, with trials being conducted in partnership with B&M Longworth and Cygnet Texkimp. The project now intends to refine and scale up these operations to bring recovered continuous carbon fiber to market.

With the first phase of the project scheduled for completion in November 2022, the center plans to qualify material performance before moving to the next stage of industrialization.

Achieve continuous carbon fiber recycling

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

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

This pressure cycle is repeated to release all of the material suspended in the fiber so that the individual elements can be recovered. Being able to leave the main component material intact, any length of material can be retained.

With application in the manufacturing of many technologies including airplanes, electric vehicles and hydrogen storage tanks, demand for virgin fiber is expected to exceed supply by 2025. The NCC therefore aims to ease supply chain pressures and put the UK at the forefront of composites recycling and help the industry meet its net zero targets.

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For example, the recovered continuous carbon fiber can replace new materials used to manufacture sporting goods such as sneakers, which produce an average of about 13.6 kg of carbon emissions during manufacture. However, with its new process, the NCC predicts that using reclaimed carbon fiber could reduce emissions from material production from 29.5 kg CO2e per kg to 5 kg CO2e.

Additionally, the project hopes that the introduction of second-life materials into supply chains will help companies stay profitable as the cost of new carbon fibers will increase as supply decreases, with aerospace and defense organizations taking priority.

The new processes aim to speed up the production of three different grades of carbon fiber; Class A, including continuous filaments of specified length and stiffness, used in energy, automotive manufacturing and sporting goods; Class B, for short fibers of specified length and stiffness, applicable to automotive, marine and medical markets; and Class C, marking damaged fibers usable in chemical processing.

These are expected to support a range of commercial applications and reduce the amount of continuous carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) material going to landfill in the UK by 50 per cent over the next four years.

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Currently, carbon fiber recycling processes can only handle chopped segments and have limited industrial applications. However, the new endless carbon fiber strips that NCC wants to industrialize retain a higher material performance than conventionally recycled materials

A process in six phases

After an initial sprint project, the program transitions into six consecutive phases. In phase one, the quality of the feedstock of the material going into the recovery process is checked, including auto fiber inspection and understanding how to scale up the process.

Phase two will then look at making the process ‘tunable’ to recover long fibers at rates and for specific properties, to then define an energy model for long fiber recovery. Next, in phase three, it is determined how to unwind the fiber at a speed and how to identify defects in the recovered fibers at a good speed. In phase four, the recovered fibers will be characterized by comparing them to virgin materials and determining their market price.

Once this is complete, phase five will begin reforming recycled fiber into a format suitable for commercial use. Completing the process, phase six focuses on formulating a contractual supply of recovered fibers to OEMs.

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Collectively, these phases aim to build a supply chain that recovers continuous carbon fibers. What the partners want to extract from this overall process are the potential differences that the scale of operations would have for the process, for example by comparing the needs and productivity of a national recycling center versus a fiber manufacturer with an on-site recycling facility.

Enrique Garcia, Chief Technology Officer at the National Composites Centre, said: “The UK is known to be a world leader in the industrialization of carbon fiber 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 capitalize on the tremendous growth in US defense spending in the 1980s and later on a boom in consumer demand for high quality carbon fiber products.

“We now have a unique opportunity to advance a new market by industrialising the processes required to recycle carbon fiber – it is imperative that we now invest heavily in establishing this capability in the UK.

“We want to quickly expand this collaboration and are looking for partners interested in accelerating product demonstrators using recovered continuous filaments to quickly reduce their manufacturing carbon footprint.”

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