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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Sustainability of Composites – A Roadmap for the Future

This week I’m going to provide a bit of a preview of what I’m going to talk about at the SAMPE conference on May 22 in Long Beach, albeit with a slightly different focus in that this post is focused on the business aspects of the industry.  This is a topic that is near to my heart, so this is also in keeping with the theme that I have been working on now for a few months in this newsletter.


First I need to provide a definition of what Sustainability of Composites really means.  I have said this in previous posts, but different people have different interpretations of this.  Some interpretations are based on a material supplier’s efforts to make their manufacturing processes sustainable; some are based on some interpretation of sustainability that is closer to what is called “greenwashing” than it should be; and some have the same interpretation that I do.  My interpretation which is similar to other experienced folks in this field who do not have a profit motive is that we need to get off of the use of any petroleum products either for raw materials like fibers and resins, and also move to renewable energy based manufacturing and fabrication of composites. 

So, how are we going to get to a completely renewable ad sustainable future when most fibers and all resins are based in the petrochemical business – i.e. Big Oil.  And of course a bigger question is how do we do it without most if not all of the current raw material suppliers and composites fabricators going out of business.  That is the big question that I am going to try to answer here and also at the SAMPE conference in Long Beach in a couple of weeks. 

There is an achievable path or roadmap if you will that will get us all there if we get started and make investments (spend $) in new technology development and maturation.  What I’m going to advocate is a small steps leading to big steps approach to this that can be managed at the corporate level of all of the manufacturers and fabricators in this business. 

Of course, first we have to state the problems or challenges that need to be solved and where each piece of the set of challenges resides.  These can be broken down into four categories:

·         Technical Challenges – The precursors for most fibers and all resins are petroleum based ad the plant based or sustainable precursors have not been completely developed as yet.  In addition, the fabrication processes for making not only fibers and resins but also composite parts is energy intensive and largely driven by burning of fossil fuels. 

·         Social and Political Challenges – The public, and even some members of Congress are beginning to understand and talk about the carbon footprint of composites.  This will only increase over time, so the composites industry needs to address this problem head on and fairly quickly. 

·         Future Financial Challenges – The price of oil – the predominant source of raw material for composites – is only going to go up.  As oil becomes more scarce there will be more internal civil (in the oil producing nations) and international conflict over supply.  This will only make the problem of scarcity worse further driving up the actual cost of petroleum products. 

·         Other Political and Regulatory Challenges – As members of Congress in increasingly become aware of the carbon footprint of composites the political will to regulate the industry will build.  As this builds the material suppliers will find the regulatory burden on the industry further challenging cost and the ability of material suppliers and composites fabricators have not reduced or eliminated their carbon footprint.

Now that we understand the challenges, it is time to lay out a roadmap that all of the material suppliers and composites fabricators can follow to reduce and eventually eliminate their carbon footprint.  What I’m going to try to do it to provide an overall roadmap that has enough flexibility to allow any supplier or fabricator to use.  In other words, the backbone of a plan to transform your company. 

First on the list of things to do is to have corporate leadership buy in to the need to transform their company.  This is going to cost money and is also temporarily at least going to have an effect on their bottom line.  Corporate leadership that is not fully committed will doom any of these companies to failure.  In other words, it ain’t going to be easy. 

Next on the list is the technical challenge, especially for the material suppliers (fiber and resin), because the technology to use plant based precursors for both fiber and resin is still in its infancy.  This is caused both by the difficulty of this challenge as well as the amount of funding that has been allocated to solving this problem.  All of the plant-based solutions to date have been developed by University professors and grad students working in University laboratories.  There are a couple of these efforts that are being scaled up at present, especially in the creation of plant-based acrylonitrile for carbon fiber, but none of these efforts have hit mainstream yet.  What this is going to require is that the companies in the fiber business and in the resin business need to make significant investments in some of the promising University research approaches. 

One challenge that comes up when we start talking about this is who owns the intellectual property.  The composites industry is famously protective of their intellectual property.  There have been years long lawsuits over things like Kevlar fiber.  Companies in this business need to understand that their “secret sauce” should not dominate discussions in working with University professors, or even other competitive companies.  There have been a number of consortia in other industries that develop technology in the open and share it with everyone – best example is the internet.  So, companies need to compete more on cost/price than holding their intellectual property as close to the vest as is common in this industry. 

The next challenge – the social and political challenge – is best solved by being completely transparent about what your company is doing.  The best communications strategy in this case is to own up to the fact that your present processes and materials have a very large carbon footprint.  Then talk about the fact that the company is committed to doing something about it and what you are doing about it.  This communication does not need to be in detailed technical presentations, but rather needs to be dumbed down to where anyone in Congress will understand it.  Hiring professionals in the communications business would be prudent to ensure that your simple message lands effectively and completely.  And this communication needs to be started at the outset of the company’s efforts to reduce/eliminate your carbon footprint.  It also needs to be refreshed and recommunicated with updates on a regular schedule so that the company’s efforts are foremost on the minds of decision makers.

Given that companies in this industry adopt the above two strategies to carbon neutrality, namely actually doing something about it and making sure that everyone – especially decision makers – knows about it and agrees, the financial and regulatory challenges will easily fall in place.  This means that at the end of the day the companies in this industry can pat themselves on the back for having averted certain disaster to their business.

That’s about it for this week.  I hope everyone that reads these posts enjoys them as much as I enjoy writing them.  As usual I will post this first on my website – www.nedpatton.com – as well as on LinkedIn.  And if anyone wants to provide comments to this, I welcome them with open arms.  Comments, criticisms, etc. are all quite welcome.  I really do want to engage in a conversation with all of you about composites because we can learn so much from each other as long as we share our own perspectives. 

I also wanted to remind everyone to attend the SAMPE conference in Long Beach in May if you can.  There will be many talks of interest to everyone in this industry, and the shakers and movers will be showing off their newest creations.  Since I’m going to be talking about composites sustainability, maybe I can help the industry a bit again, maybe even rattle a few cages like what happened at the Carbon Fiber Conference in Salt Lake.  One can only hope.  Anyway, for anyone that is interested in materials and process engineering, SAMPE will be a great conference.  And they will have a really great exhibit as well. 

And, finally, I still need to plug my book, so here’s the plug.  The book pretty much covers the watershed in composites, starting with a brief history of composites, then introducing the Periodic Table and why Carbon is such an important and interesting element.  The book was published and made available last August, and is available both on Amazon and from McFarland Books – my publisher.  However, the best place to get one is to go to my website and buy one.  I will send you a signed copy for the same price you would get charged on Amazon, except that I charge $8 shipping.  Anyway, here’s the link to get your signed copy:  https://www.nedpatton.com/product-page/the-string-and-glue-of-our-world-signed-copy.  And as usual, here’s a picture of the book, for those of you just tuning in. 



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