American folklorist and author Zora Neale Hurston once said, “Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” While she may have been talking about research related to writing, the sentiment is just as valid for scientific endeavors.

At university campuses throughout the world, researchers are cultivating their curiosity and delving into unexplored areas to advance technologies and solve problems. In this issue of Composites Manufacturing magazine, our annual article on university R&D explores five potential game-changing projects related to hot industry topics, ranging from 3D printing to recycling.

Auto Parts from Water Bottles

Project: Recycled PET tapes and fabrics

School: University of Limerick

Location: Limerick, Ireland

Principal Investigator: Walter Stanley

Researchers at the Irish Composites Centre (IComp), Bernal Institute, University of Limerick have developed a self-reinforced polyethylene terephthalate (SerPET) composite that they hope will create a cradle-to-grave solution for the world’s abundance of discarded plastic bottles.

According to a 2018 Forbes magazine article, more than a million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, but only 9 percent are recycled. With total PET production at about 20 million tons last year, that’s a lot of wasted material, says Walter Stanley, a faculty member in science and engineering at the University of Limerick. He hopes that the new material will spur more recycling as industry begins using SerPET to manufacture auto parts, sporting goods and more.

Currently, recycled PET is used for low-end, non-structural applications, such as filling for diapers and pillows. Since it began a few years ago, the SerPET project has focused on creating more structural materials, including unidirectional tapes and 0°/90° woven fabrics.

SerPET is 100% recyclable, something that Stanley believes could help auto manufacturers meet strict European Union auto recycling requirements. He asserts that the new SerPET material could also dramatically increase manufacturing throughput. The fiber sheath contains patent-pending susceptor particles that react to radiofrequencies, enabling the sheath to be heated in seconds, like in a microwave. Stanley cautions that industry would have to adopt radiofrequency presses first.

To date, Stanley and his team have used a 0°/90° fabric woven at Axis Composites Ltd. in Newtownabbey, Northern Ireland, to compression mold a SerPET cover for a mini-computer tablet. In the future, he believes that SerPET could be used to manufacture automotive parts, sports equipment and electronic components, for which, he says, “You don’t need the really, really expensive carbon fibers or the glass fibers and the associated thermoset matrix.”