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How to tap into the growing world of carbon fibres?

Worldwide production of carbon fibre is expected to reach 140 000 tonnes in the early 2020s, up from less than 20 000 at the start of the millennium.

Frazer Barnes, managing director of recycling firm ELG Carbon Fibre, shares his view on this rapidly evolving market.

How exactly does ELG Carbon Fibre process the material?

‘We use a patented furnace process called ‘continuous pyrolysis’ to convert the reclaimed fibres. This involves the thermal removal of resins in a controlled environment at temperatures in the range of 400-650°C. This process is optimised for different types of feedstock and results in clean fibres that have very similar properties to the original fibre with all residues removed. Products we have created range from non-woven mats to carbon fibre pellets. From a cost and fibre quality standpoint, this is the most commercially viable process for carbon fibre recycling.’

Carbon fibre still represents a niche market. What is your take on the situation right now? 

‘The market today is strong, with double digit annual growth still being achieved and forecast to continue for some time. Historically, the industry has seen new applications drive major expansions – most recently wind energy and commercial aerospace. The expectation is that developments in automotive (including hydrogen and CNG tanks) and electronics will boost demand significantly. As very little waste is recycled, there is a huge potential for this industry to expand, especially given the developments showing how recycled fibres can be returned to use.’

What would you say is the best application for recycled carbon fibres?

‘To date, I would say that applications in the compounding industry are most important. Recycled carbon fibres provide the same or better performance than virgin carbon fibres in thermoplastic compounds. From a sustainability point of view, the use of recycled fibres with a much lower environmental impact than virgin makes a lot of sense as the fibres are already short. There is also a well-established capability in injection moulding to use these materials. So, applications in these areas are very important. The composites market is also very important. Initially, the main attraction of using recycled materials was their lower cost. However, as customers have started using the products other benefits such as very good drapeability, excellent surface finish and as a very efficient bulking material for thick laminates have become apparent.’

The full interview with Frazer Barnes will be published in the upcoming issue of Recycling Interational.

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