Q. As a commercial recycler, how has demand for recycled carbon fibre evolved in the last 10 years?
Within the composites industry, there is still very little demand for recycled carbon fibre, with most of the carbon fibre that is recycled today being used in the coatings and compounding industries. We are now seeing an increased awareness of the need for recycling from the composites industry, and anticipate that this situation will change over the next 2 to 3 years.
Q. How have processing efficiencies developed over this time?
Within ELG, we have increased our actual production of recycled carbon fibre from around 250 tonnes in 2013 to more than 900 tonnes in 2015. This has been achieved mainly by optimising our processes. The result of increasing our throughput and optimising our processes has been to reduce the energy consumed to produce each kilo of recycled carbon fibre by more than 50% since 2013.
Q. Is classification of input material still a major challenge? What can be done to improve this?
Today, we are working mainly with high volume manufacturers and the quantities of waste combined with the waste handling procedures these companies have developed means that we wouldn’t consider classification to be a challenge in our business at the moment. Where we have, and indeed still do, see problems is with feedstock from companies that have less developed waste handling procedures. The problem is not so much the classification of the carbon fibre waste, but contamination from other types of composite material and indeed the inclusion of non-composite waste. This is something that we believe could be addressed by the various trade organisations (in the UK, mainland Europe and North America) working to develop guidelines for the handling of composite waste streams to facilitate recycling. Once such guidelines exist, it would then be important for industry to adopt these guidelines.
Q. What does the future hold for recycled carbon fibre?
Initially, our main focus was industrialising the process for recovering carbon fibre—essentially, the challenge to produce high volumes of consistent quality carbon fibre from a wide variety of input materials. As we achieved this goal, our focus has turned to the conversion of the recovered carbon fibres into products that can be used in the composites and injection moulding industries, which is where we see the largest growth potential. At the laboratory level, we have demonstrated product performance that shows that these materials can provide weight savings that are comparable to that which can be achieved with conventional carbon fibre composites, but at a much lower cost. As the automotive industry in particular looks for cost effective weight saving, we see recycled carbon role playing an increasing role as car manufactures adopt a multi-material approach to achieving the weight savings necessary to meet future emission targets. Our understanding of the market potential based on the performance/price characteristics of recycled carbon fibre products means that we are now expanding our operations in Coseley in the UK, as well as deep into the design phase for a second plant that will be situated in mainland Europe.
Q. What are you looking forward to at GOCarbonFibre Recycling? Why is this event one that you regularly look to support?
The opportunities for carbon fibre recycling and the benefits that this can deliver are still relatively unknown outside of academia. We’re looking forward to sharing information on how ELG has industrialised this technology, and exchanging ideas about how carbon fibre recycling solutions can be realised in practice. We believe that having a conference focused on this theme will ensure that the right people are participating in this discussion about the future of what is still a very young industry.