Whether on the exhibit hall floor or in educational sessions, one of the predominant topics at CAMX 2019 was recycling. The composites industry is pining for recycling solutions, but just how close is it to fruition?

Dan Coughlin, vice president of market development for ACMA, kicked off Wednesday’s small group campfire session by talking about how ACMA has teamed up with the Institute for Advanced Composites Manufacturing Innovation (IACMI) and industry to help make composite recycling a reality. Together, they have identified two requirements for successful commercial recycling: a well-characterized, high-volume source of material and clear market pull for the products that will be made from the recycled material.

Many campfire session attendees are eager to find recycling solutions for their waste streams. One executive admitted that his company sends 10 dumpsters of composite waste to the landfill each week, and he would love to reduce associated costs through a recycling solution. Such a solution has been tough to identify. In true campfire fashion, the group bandied around potential solutions, including onsite shredding or pyrolysis and collaborating with other manufacturers to aggregate waste material.

These three advancements in recycling were among those presented at CAMX:

  • Short Fiber Prepregs with Continuous Fiber Properties

Senior Scientist John J. Tierney of the University of Delaware’s Center for Composite Materials (UD-CCM) said that his group plans to “attack the metals industry” with a new process that aligns short carbon fibers for feedstock. Through a project funded by the Tailorable Feedstock and Forming Program (TFF) of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the center has created the world’s strongest and first fully-recyclable short carbon fiber composite, said Tierney. Using water to align the random recycled fibers, UD-CCM’s process produces CFRP with the same properties as continuous fiber prepreg, including up to 63% volume fraction. This allows for what Tierney calls “proper recycling” in which the fibers can be reused in primary structures rather than down cycled into a part with lesser properties, such as using recycled fibers from a fender to create a floor mat.

Shridhar Yarlagadda, UD-CCM’s assistant director for research, notes that the new material is highly formable for complex geometries and does not require trimming. “We can make a complex form in a single ply,” he stresses. Tierney said that these properties will help composite feedstock compete with metals. “We are going after them at their own game,” he said. “Low-cost source material, cheap carbon fiber, rapid sub-minute forming and zero touch labor – and you can recycle it. That’s how the metal guys stay in business!”

  • Recycled Styrene Monomer for Resins

Regenyx, a new joint venture between styrene monomer and polystyrene manufacturer AmSty (American Styrenics) and Agilyx, is converting post-consumer and post-industrial polystyrene and EPS waste into liquid styrene monomer for resins. Calling styrene monomer the “backbone of resin,” Kevin Dougherty, account manager at AmSty, said the new venture will give resin manufacturers the ability to add green content to their material mix and market that to their customers. To date, the group has recycled over 500,000 pounds of polystyrene waste – the equivalent of 150 million coffee cups. The waste can be used in composites or converted into pellets to manufacture new polystyrene cups. Dougherty said the there is no difference between virgin and recycled styrene monomer. “It has all the same properties of virgin material because you are using chemical recycling to take it back down to the molecular level,” he said.

  • Carbon Fiber Made from Cured and Uncured Waste

During a CAMX featured session on recycling composites, Pete George of The Boeing Company shared a confession. When he became Boeing’s designated technical expert on composites recycling, he wondered if it might not be a good career move. “How much does Boeing care about recycling?” he asked himself. As it turns out, quite of lot.