Once associated only with skunk works aircraft and exotic automobiles exclusively available to the world’s elite, carbon fiber is quickly becoming the material of choice and industry standard for high-performance structural and aesthetic product construction. As the aerospace, automotive and renewables industries call for lighter-weight, more efficient, stronger and environmentally-sound materials, carbon fiber will soon assert its dominance over a broad spectrum of industries. With a slow, yet steady decline in price as carbon fiber becomes more widely available for a diverse array of applications, we see the production and consumption of the material increasing dramatically – with a dramatic increase in carbon fiber waste.
Simple in composition, carbon fiber consists mainly of woven fibers derived from pure carbon, which are then bound together with a polymer matrix. Despite its simplicity, carbon fiber requires a remarkable amount of energy to produce. The issue now becomes clear: increasing demand requires increased production, requiring more energy, producing more material for consumption and more material as waste – all of which have clear and measurable costs. What we are faced with now is a new market and industry for carbon fiber reclamation: carbon fiber recycling.
Despite the now widespread use of carbon fiber, the market for recycling of the material has lagged greatly. From an economic perspective, there is a growing opportunity among material scientists, private industry and waste management professionals to develop and innovate efficient systems that address environmental and reclamation needs while providing added cost benefit over newly manufactured carbon fiber materials.
For a moment, let us consider the procurement and control of potential feedstock. The greatest obstacle will always be securing sources of high quality carbon fiber scrap, whether it is production scrap or used products including lightweight components used in Christensen’s world famous yachts produced here in Vancouver or the fuselage of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner manufactured just south of Seattle. Ultimately, the size of the carbon fiber recycling industry will likely not be determined by demand, but by the availability of supply, driven by a rapidly growing industrial and consumer market.
Considering the growing adoption of carbon fiber by the automotive, aerospace, maritime and other large industries including public transportation (bus & rail), energy, power sports, furniture and defense, the amount of recyclate is poised to explode. Vancouver, Washington may be perfectly positioned to host this emerging and innovative industry. A burgeoning market currently controlled (if we can really say controlled at this early stage) by Europe and Japan, current commercialized carbon fiber recycling practices rely heavily on the antiquated process of pyrolysis (breaking down of organic material on the molecular level via high temperatures – something I became familiar with when working with the forestry industry to develop methods of sustainable biomass distillation) that damage the fiber and produce environmentally unfriendly char. Ultimately, the damaging effects of the high temperatures and the cost of treatment of the gasses that pyrolysis produces exceed the actual cost of the pyrolysis process itself.
Vancouver’s rapidly expanding ecosystem of innovation could prove to be the ideal environment to nurture a carbon fiber recycling venture. The availability of academic, material science and private industry production resources create an environment of collaboration necessary to encourage this innovative and increasingly necessary venture. Vancouver’s advanced materials and composite supply chain lends itself to the venture as well, with specialized carbon fiber components utilized in everything from Christensen Shipyard’s 160+ foot luxury yachts to the lightweight structure of INSITU’s intelligence gathering drones.
With a strong partnership between industry scientists and engineers, local university resources (WSU Vancouver)
and local enterprise, the potential for the creation of an innovative carbon fiber recycling venture is not absurdly far outside the realm of possibility and would be a hallmark of the region’s commitment to innovative thinking and sustainable economies.
Max Ault is the business development manager for the Columbia River Economic Development Council. He can be reached at 360.567.1055.