Composites centre wants UK to lead on recycled carbon fibres

Article by Adam Duckett

THE UK’s National Composites Centre (NCC) has set its sights on scaling up new industrial processes to establish a commercial market for reclaimed continuous carbon fibre, noting that the UK could take advantage of this growing opportunity for greener technology rather than repeating past mistakes and letting other countries capitalise on the work.

Until recently, recycling processes for composite components such as aircraft wings and wind turbines have recovered short, mechanically-compromised fibres not suited for reuse in high-performance products. Earlier this year, NCC working with process developer B&M Longworth successfully reclaimed longer “continuous” lengths of carbon fibres from a pressure vessel and used them to build a new one. It has now launched a three-year innovation programme to refine and scale up the processes required to establish a commercial market for these reclaimed high-performance fibres.

Enrique Garcia, Chief Technology Officer at NCC, said: “Famously, the UK leads the world in the industrialisation of carbon fibre 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 capitalise on a huge growth in US defence spending in the 1980s and, later, a boom in consumer demand for high-end carbon fibre products.

“We now have a unique opportunity to drive forward a new market by industrialising the processes required to recycle carbon fibre – it is imperative that we push hard now to establish this capability in the UK.”

If the technology is showed to work it could divert carbon fibre from landfill, reduce manufacturing emissions, and guard against a possible shortage of carbon fibre with demand for its use in high- and green-tech applications expected to soar in coming years. The first step in the programme will be qualifying the performance of the recovered material by November.

“We’re looking to rapidly scale up this collaboration and seek partners who would be interested in accelerating product demonstrators using reclaimed continuous fibre in order to rapidly reduce their manufacturing carbon footprint.”

The NCC has calculated that using reclaimed carbon fibre reduces material manufacturing emissions from around 29.5 kg CO2e per kg to 5 kg CO2e.

When it announced its breakthrough recovery earlier this year, NCC said the development was a significant milestone in development of the UK’s hydrogen interests. It said that high-strength, lower-weight carbon fibres are the ideal choice for compressing and storing low density hydrogen gas, especially in hydrogen pressure vessels in vehicles such as aeroplanes.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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