Another west coast state whose economy is impacted by carbon fiber and its potential for recycling is Colorado, where carbon fiber recycling company Vartega is helping lead the charge. The company’s motto is to “reduce the world’s carbon footprint by increasing its carbon fiber footprint.” Vartega focuses on recycling uncured and expired material. Vartega president Andrew Maxey says the company uses a chemistry-based process to separate out the uncured resin system from the carbon fiber reinforcement.

aerospace-prepreg-fabric-vartega

The fabric on the left is aerospace prepreg CFRP. On the right is Vartega’s recycled woven fabric from toughened aerospace prepreg. The material was recycled using Vartega’s patent-pending process. Photo Credit: Vartega

“This process can work on other fiber reinforcements as well, but the economics for carbon fiber make the most sense right now,” Maxey says. “It’s a low-energy, low-heat process, and it results in a recycled carbon fiber with very good mechanical properties. In fact, our mechanical properties are essentially [the] same as virgin carbon fiber.”

Maxey says the composites industry can reduce landfill burdens with recycled carbon fiber to displace energy intensive production of virgin material. Ultimately, it saves everyone in the supply chain money. “At the end of the day, we save waste generators money because they’re paying less to recycle than they are to landfill their scrap material,” Maxey says. “Then on the flip side, recycled materials are lower cost than virgin carbon fiber, so we provide an economic incentive for our customers there as well to use recycled materials rather than virgin materials.”

GFRP Recycling

Currently, there are several factors that make the goal of creating a business out of recycling GFRP more ambitious than attainable. The biggest overarching issue is Economics 101 – supply and demand. CFRP recycling is easier to justify because the material has high market value and is produced in relatively low volumes. GFRP is the opposite.

“Who in their right mind wants to use a recycled material when they can use a virgin material cheaper?” says Bill Magill, director of reinforcements for Superior Oil Co. Inc. He adds that since there’s such a wide variety of ways you can combine materials to make GFRP, it’s difficult to find a uniform feedstock for recycling. A-glass, E-glass, S-glass and C-glass composites have different structures and cores. “It’s a process engineering nightmare,” Magill says.

Magill notes, though, that GFRP is a lot easier and cheaper to recycle if the resin is a thermoplastic, such as polyamide, polyester or polypropylene. He says thermoplastic GFRP accounts for more pounds of recycled composite materials than all other forms of composites combined in terms of overall magnitude.