“There also needs to be a market for the recycled material to go to,” Wagger adds. “You can do all the collection, sorting and processing, but if it doesn’t make it to someone who is actually transforming it into a new material, then recycling doesn’t happen.”

Manufacturers of composites and composite parts have to start thinking about recycling from day one. How can dispensable parts and production scrap be harvested, separated out and converted to a product that that can be reprocessed into new material?

Outlook Promising for Carbon Fiber

The composites industry will be more likely to embrace recycling if there’s a good business case for its adoption. “We have a good story to tell on the carbon fiber side,” says Coughlin. “People are recovering carbon fiber, they are selling it, and it is getting used to the point where there is market pull from major OEMs who see recycled carbon fiber as an attractive resource.” Turning composites scrap from a waste material into a valued resource is a significant milestone in the progress that industry has made just in the last few years.

ELG Carbon Fibre has spent seven years working on a pyrolysis (high-temperature decomposition) process to recover the carbon fiber from composites, and it’s ready to operate on an industrial scale, according to Alasdair Gledhill, ELG’s commercial director. “Now the challenge is to commercialize recycled carbon fiber products,” he says. “We are at a point where ELG is in a position to put together a tailor-engineered, specification-grade raw material for use in many different markets.”

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Pyrolyzed carbon fiber from ELG Carbon Fibre is loaded into a chopper for length reduction prior to production of the non-woven textile. Photo Credit: ELG Carbon Fibre

ELG’s primary target is the automotive industry, but there are many different applications and markets in which recycled carbon fibers could be used, including other parts of the transportation industry. “Perhaps we will see recycled carbon fiber making some inroads into the aerospace market for non-mission-critical, non-structural components that require light weighting and high strength,” Gledhill adds.

ELG uses industrial scrap, cured and uncured prepregs and laminates for its feedstock, most coming from aerospace industrial scrap. “As the business matures, maybe 15 to 20 years from now, we will start seeing more end-of-life scrap come back to us,” Gledhill says. For example, when an automobile is shredded at the end of its lifespan, companies like ELG can capture its carbon fiber components and recycle them. Wind turbine blades could be another source of carbon fiber, even though they contain more glass fiber than carbon.