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business models, strategies and technologies

The composite materials conundrum

Using new kinds of composite materials in industry results in complex new kinds of mixed waste – with both problems and opportunities

Composite paths to engineered capabilities

Carbon fibre and glass fibre-reinforced plastics have enormous advantages in many kinds of structures because of their unique combinations of lightness and exceptional strength. These are just two of a growing category of composite materials that basically use a “fibre + resin” model for combining exceptional strength with exceptionally low weight for any required technical performance figure. This specialist niche in materials science provides remarkable opportunities to develop and use new materials (think Nobel Prize-winning graphene and the lesser-known stanene, for example) with radically different characteristics and capabilities, Engineers are now able to design materials for what they want to achieve, rather than the traditional path of trying to find existing materials (or engineering workarounds) that will do the required job.

(Very) simply put, the core of the design of composite materials lies in “mixing” these resins and fibres so they don’t and can’t (easily) separate. The primary function of the two components is to gel together with exceptional efficiency, so any separation would be counter to their primary engineered purpose. That’s why – again, simply put – any processes for recovering, reclaiming or repurposing composites requires specialist know-how and advanced techniques.

Recovering components from composites

Composites are now widely used in high-profile structures that include wind turbine blades, aircraft bodies and engine nacelles, car parts and leisure boats – all booming markets. Current estimates are that global demand for carbon fibre composites, for example, will more than double – perhaps to as much as 180,000 tonnes – by 2020. However, it is reliably reported that current manufacturing technologies result in approximately 30% of this carbon fibre consumption just ending up as waste during production.

If the technology is available, such waste can be recovered for incorporation into new products, using less than 10% of the energy required to produce the original carbon fibre, thus making it possible to fulfil key legislative and sustainability targets as well as boost profit margins.

So it’s perhaps not surprising that industrial giant Mitsubishi Corp. recently acquired a 25% shareholding in UK composite recycling company ELG Carbon Fibre from its German parent, the metals-reprocessing specialist ELG Haniel, effective as of 5 April 2019. ELG Carbon Fibre operates the world’s first and currently largest carbon fibre recovery plant, based on what it asserts is a patented carbon fibre reclaiming process. However, the primary focus of the company is showcased as being the development and industrialisation of such conversion technologies to provide recycled carbon fibre products that can be reintroduced in sufficiently large volumes and at sufficiently high quality to suit the needs of customers in high-value manufacturing, such as the automotive and aircraft building industries.

Value of end-of-life disposal frameworks

Responsible business practices involving these high-capability composite materials require that there are effective, “built-in” plans for disposing of them, and for recovering and/or re-using the materials once their service life is over. This requires more than just the usual bland assertions that they can be disposed of.  We can really only presume and hope that manufacturers have mechanisms in place for the responsible recovery or disposal of such multi-component materials, but it’s not a narrative often aired. The traditional linear engineering pre-occupation with performance specifications still seems to rule the roost, while design for recycling in a circular economy hasn’t yet acquired an equal place in the limelight or the strategic value proposition.

Companies like ELG Carbon Fibre can highlight their demolition, disassembly, cutting, stripping-down, recycling and disposal capabilities, but general acceptance of the necessity, advantages and commercial opportunities of such services seems to be lagging behind. However, in the current economic climate and with new agendas requiring responsible business practices throughout industry, these skills will become a fundamental prerequisite for their client companies being able to even do business, providing a highly valuable “license to operate”.

New competitive dimensions

This composite disposal discussion doesn’t just apply to carbon fibre, of course. Companies like ROTH International, for example, deal with a wide range of other composite materials, and also operate with a positive narrative about the effective use of resources and the specialist skills need for so doing. This is just one of many examples of “recycling” companies moving away from the “dirty”, “unsexy” disposal end of the overall narrative.

I’m no expert, but it seems that these composite recovery processes must be relatively energy-intensive and expensive, which probably also means that the business driver is either legislative requirements (featuring the dreaded “compliance” word) or PR/responsibility pressure. At some point, however, the narrative will have to move on from “whether or not” to recover/recycle to a question of “how cost-effectively” it can be done – because it must be done. And that will in turn open up opportunities for truly circular calculations that will make it possible to adjust the whole perspective. For example, what’s the story if material recovery comes at the beginning of the corporate narrative, rather than always flying as “tail-end charlie”?

Corporate descriptions and self-perceptions may have moved on from the era of junk collection and scrap yards, but the overall narrative is still tinged with the more traditional “moral obligation” angle, and hasn’t really got as far as “positive contribution” and being a natural, equal part of a commercial circularity mindset.