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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Recycling Fiber is Scaling Up – And that’s Good News


Of course, It's a Lamborghini - What else would it be?

By now you all know that I am going to put an eye-catching pic at the outset of a post, but this is more to make a point about how ubiquitous carbon fiber has become in almost all industries. This Lamborghini Huracan has an all carbon fiber body, but this is just one of the initial examples in the automotive industry. And of course, once composites become as ubiquitous as they are destined to become in cars and trucks, the end of life issue becomes even more prevalent as something that we need to address today. It’s coming, and we need to be prepared.

Fortunately, there are several technologies for recycling fiber – predominantly carbon fiber because that is the highest value target right now – that are being scaled up to an industrial scale. Some of the more promising ones are solvolysis and fluidized bed processes, both of which remove the resin, leaving the continuous fiber intact. The figure below shows these two processes as well as the original process of pyrolysis which basically just burns out the resin leaving the fibers behind.


Figure from “Near- and Supercritical solvolysis of carbon fibre reinforced polymers (CFRPs) for recycling carbon fibers as a valuable resource: State of the art – Science Direct

As you can see from the spelling of “fibre” in this paper it is from Europe – specifically France. The Europeans, as I have said many times before, are quite a bit ahead of the US in this technology. My thought about that is that it is about time for us to catch up – otherwise we will be left behind.

This was made even more evident at the recent JEC World 2023 conference held in Paris this year (wish I had been there – I love Paris). There is an article in the latest Composites World (5/17/2023) that talks about some of the hottest topics covered at that conference – one of which is the recycling of carbon fiber composites in a manner that retains the continuous carbon fiber in a state that is almost as good as virgin fiber.

One company in Bordeaux France, Nova Carbon, has implemented a technology patented by the University of Bordeaux where they take raw carbon fiber from a pyrolysis or solvolysis process and turn it into continuous fiber tape that has nearly the mechanical and physical properties of virgin carbon fiber tape. The Bordeaux process takes the raw material from the resin removal process, which is commonly in layered fabric form, and unweaves it into continuous carbon fiber strands, and then processes that continuous fiber into continuous tape that can then be used just like virgin carbon fiber tape. The company claims that the mechanical properties of their recycled carbon fiber tape are very nearly the same as original carbon tape. And they are in the midst of scaling this process up to industrial scale using reclaimed carbon fiber.

Another French company, Extractive, uses a solvolysis process to produce a recycled product that they call PHYre that they claim is as good or better than virgin carbon fiber. They have apparently developed a unique solvolysis process that retains both the length and the properties of the carbon fiber. They have already scaled their process up from 1 to 1000 kg/day, and have commissioned an industrial scale demonstration that is targeting 20 metric tons per day b sometime in 2024. They expect to have this process scaled up to 500 metric tons per day by 2025, and already have plans for two more plants to come on line in 2028 and 2030. They claim that they can even recover the acids used in the solvolysis process as well as the resins that have been dissolved out of the carbon fiber composites. Now their main motivation is finding markets for their recycled carbon fiber.

To that end, an Italian company founded in 2022, ReCarbon, uses recycled carbon fiber (rCF in the parlance of the industry) to make products that can be sold into the same markets as the OEM carbon fiber producers. They claim that their goal is to “close the loop” in taking recycled carbon fiber and reintroducing it into the composites precursor market. They have a range of different products using rCF that include dry tapes, prepreg sheets, thermoplastic prepregs, and other basic product forms common to the composites industry.

Finally, a Chinese company, HRC Group, has begun offering high end, advanced composite solutions to the automotive, aerospace, and industrial markets – all using rCF. They are more of a cradle to grave company, and have recently completed construction of a 20,000 square meter (215,000 square foot) facility that has not only a solvolysis line, it also has a prepreg line that is directly connected and in the same facility. Effectively, waste composites come into this facility and finished products ready to be made into composite structures come out.

All of these companies are in the business to make money, and it appears that they are all successful since all of them were at JEC World in Paris showing off their stuff. This is very good news for the global composites industry because it means that the recycling of composites has come front and center in the industrial marketplace. And, as I said earlier in this post, and as I have been saying now for some time, the US is quite a bit behind the rest of the world, and we need to catch up and catch up fast.

Thanks for reading this, I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, please take a look at my website www.nedpatton.com, and make sure that you sign up to receive this newsletter every week. And, of course, if you have a friend or relative that is interested in composites or the business of composites, please forward this to them so they can read it and maybe also sign up. Like they say, and as I keep saying, it takes a village.

And don’t forget to take a look at my upcoming book, https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/The-String-and-Glue-of-Our-World/. I am of course in the starting phase of the next book, but I’ll keep that one under wraps until it’s ready for public view.

See you all next week,


Ned

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