Every year, millions of pounds of carbon fiber waste goes into the world’s landfills. The vast majority of that waste is produced by the one industry responsible for most carbon fiber consumption: aerospace. One industry leader, Boeing, says they have found a solution. They believe that what they have come up with will lead to carbon fiber recycling eventually being as common as recycling titanium and aluminum.
Boeing has inked a deal with ELG Carbon Fibre to recycle its waste for future use in industrial applications. As a side note, ELG is a UK company that operates the world’s largest carbon fiber recycling plant. Theirs was the first such recycling plant in the world.
ELG uses a patented process to recycle carbon fiber waste to produce various grades of product that can then be put to use elsewhere. Their deal with Boeing will see them recycling all the waste from Boeing’s Everett, Washington plant. If all works well, they may also begin recycling waste from plants in Canada, Malaysia, and China.
Recycling Is Expensive
Despite the great work being done by ELG Carbon Fibre, the vast majority of carbon fiber waste still goes into landfills. The biggest challenge to recycling is cost, according to Utah-based Rock West Composites. It takes an awful lot of time and energy to separate carbon fibers from the thermoplastics they are embedded in, and what can be recovered suffers from at least some loss of quality and integrity.
ELG’s recycling process is a thermal process that uses high heat to burn off the plastic resin carbon fiber material is embedded in. At completion, the process leaves behind clean fiber material that can be used to create a number of other products. ELG can produce milled fibers, non-woven fabrics, chopped carbon fibers, and even carbon fiber pellets.
As for Boeing, they claim to have saved upwards of 1.5 million pounds of carbon fiber over the last 18 months by working with ELG Carbon Fibre. The recycled material cannot be used to manufacture new aerospace-grade products, but it can be put to use for industrial applications.
The Future of Recycling
Boeing is understandably excited about their partnership with ELG and what it means for keeping carbon fiber waste out of landfills. Yet the question of whether carbon fiber recycling will ever become routine or not remains unanswered.
More than one expert has made the case that the future of carbon fiber as a total replacement of aluminum and steel relies heavily on whether cost-effective recycling can be accomplished. A lack of large-scale recycling would continue to limit the use of carbon fiber outside of aerospace. In the meantime, scientists and engineers could eventually come up with a material that’s better than carbon fiber and more easily recycled.
Boeing may have the right idea by turning its waste into a lower grade product that can be used for other applications. For every ton of recovered carbon fiber that goes into industrial applications, there is another ton of pure carbon fiber material that is not being used for those applications.
In theory, this could bring the cost of both carbon fiber production and recycling down. Falling prices would make carbon fiber more attractive to more industries as well.
The entire industry will be watching Boeing and DLG over the next several years. Large-scale recycling wasn’t possible just a few years ago, so there’s some healthy skepticism that the Boeing plan will achieve the desired results. But if it does, carbon fiber recycling could indeed be routine just a few years from now.