R3FIBER technology from TRC uses a thermochemical process to recycle composites. Photo Credit: TRC

Grau and a team from the Spanish National Research Council’s National Center for Metallurgical Research began developing R3FIBER in 2008, built a pilot plant in 2014 and officially launched TRC last year. They are currently designing a pre-industrial plant with 100 tons of nominal capacity, with plans to build the facility in 2018.

R3FIBER utilizes a thermochemical process that converts the resins of combustible gases and liquid fuels into high-quality glass or carbon fibers that can be reused and retain 70 to 90 percent of the mechanical properties of virgin fibers, says Grau. The process can be used on both GFRP and CFRP with different resins, primarily epoxy and phenolic. “Afterward, the fibers can be used to manufacture new composites, and the fuel obtained during the process can be revalorized into the market,” says Grau.

Grau didn’t share further details of TRC’s patented recycling process. However, the company has signed agreements with strategic collaborators, including EDP Renewables (EDPR), one of the world’s largest wind energy producers. EDPR and TRC will work together to recycle damaged and end-of-life wind turbine blades. TRC also is part of Climate-KIC, a public-private partnership created by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology to focus on climate change and create economically-viable products to mitigate climate change.

While R3FIBER is in the scale-up phase now, TRC hopes to commercialize the technology. TRC also is developing new materials and products made of recycled fibers. Grau says his company could provide a viable solution for composites manufacturers, consumers and the environment. “Thanks to our technology, cheaper and more environmentally-friendly fibers will be available,” he says.

The Disrupter: Composite Exosuit

Broader Implications: Human assistive devices could increase productivity, efficiency and safety.

In recent years, a popular research trend is the idea of science inspired by science fiction. One retail giant, home improvement company Lowe’s, created a laboratory it says uses “narrative-driven innovation” to create new technologies to “disrupt the future.” Earlier this year, Lowe’s Innovation Labs teamed up with Alan Asbeck, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Virginia Tech, to create a superhero-inspired exosuit designed to help employees lift and move items through the store more efficiently.

The exosuit features unidirectional, prepreg CFRP beams that go behind an employee’s legs, with CFRP straps around the thighs that connect to the beams. The exosuits also incorporate CFRP straps, like a backpack, for an employee’s shoulders, and a belt across the middle to connect the shoulder straps.