The National Composites Centre (NCC) is hoping to fast-track a ‘second-life’ materials market for recycled carbon fibre in the UK.
The centre has launched a three-year innovation programme to refine and scale the industrial processes needed to establish a commercial market for reclaimed continuous carbon fibre, with the aim to eventually ease pressure on supply chains and define a ‘new era’ for composites.
The global demand for virgin fibre is reportedly set to exceed supply by 2025. Whilst chopped carbon fibre is already recycled, according to the NCC industrial applications for the material remain ‘narrow’.
“Famously, the UK leads the world in the industrialisation of carbon fibre manufacturing but has struggled to develop the sector,” said Enrique Garcia, Chief Technology Officer at the NCC. “We exported much of our expertise – and even our manufacturing infrastructure – to Japan, which was subsequently able to capitalise on a huge growth in US defence spending in the 1980s and, later, a boom in consumer demand for high-end carbo fibre products.”
Due to its lightweight, strength, and design-friendly properties, carbon fibre is a particularly desirable material for a broad spectrum of applications ranging from aircraft and electric vehicles (EVs) to hydrogen storage tanks and next-generation turbine blades. In fact, global demand for the material is estimated to outstrip supply by 2030, growing from around 100,000MT today to some 300,000MT. This shortage would impact several sectors looking to utilise the material to achieve their net zero goals.
To address this, the NCC has worked with B&M Longworth and Cygnet Texkimp to trial and test processes to reclaim and reuse continuous lengths of carbon fibre that reportedly retain a higher material performance. The aim of the project is to accelerate the development of three different grades of carbon fibre – named ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’, to support a broader range of applications, while halving the amount of continuous carbon fibre reinforced polymer (CFRP) material sent to landfill in the UK by 2026.
“We now have a unique opportunity to drive forward a new market by industrialising the processes required to recycle carbon fibre – it is imperative that we push hard now to establish this capability in the UK,” said Garcia.
Alongside the development of the new carbon fibre materials, the NCC is developing a ‘second-life’ supply chain to help businesses remain profitable and drive the scalable industrialisation of continuous carbon fibre recycling.
Ultimately, the initiative hopes to build a strong supply chain for recycled carbon fibre in the UK. Through the project, the NCC has set out a route map to industrialisation, with its first ‘sprint project’ set to be finalised in November 2022.
“We’re looking to rapidly scale-up this collaboration and seek partners who would be interested in accelerating product demonstrators using reclaimed continuous fibre in order to rapidly reduce their manufacturing carbon footprint,” Garcia added.