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Carbon fibres sector chasing new highs

In a world striving to switch to cleaner energy and cut the weight of transport, demands are growing that the materials needed to create this future should, ultimately, be recycled. Will tech companies and recyclers respond in time?

Whether you are talking about the design of a new car, the latest aircraft, yacht or luxury apartment – they all have one thing in common: carbon fibre. Its use can decrease the weight of a Boeing Dreamliner by up to 20% and reduce fuel costs by at least 5% through aerodynamic advantages so it is unsurprising that it is a popular material for manufacturers.

Annual worldwide production of the composite is expected to reach almost 150 000 tonnes in the next few years, according to Frazer Barnes, chairman and chief technical officer of Gen 2 Carbon (formerly ELG Carbon Fibre). Two decades ago, output was barely 20 000 tonnes. Through partnerships with major brands, Gen 2 Carbon saves hundreds of tonnes of the material from becoming waste every year. ‘Our pyrolysis recycling method allows the carbon fibre to retain 90% of its tensile strength,’ Barnes asserts.

The entrepreneur has helped develop a closed-loop recycling scheme for carbon fibre waste streams from end-of-life aircraft. ‘Every tonne of carbon fibre from an aircraft that is transformed into new material saves around 20 tonnes of global warming potential CO2 equivalent with only 10% of the energy required to produce virgin carbon fibre.’

Up and up

Around 65 000 tonnes of unused end-of-life and carbon fibre production waste stacks up every year despite the high demand for the composite material, estimates researcher Sankar Karuppannan Gopalraj at LUT University in Finland. The value of the booming carbon fibres sector has reached a new peak of EUR 3.2 billion (US$ 3.8 billion) and that figure is expected to double within the next ten years.

Meanwhile, the global recycled carbon fibres industry was worth EUR 92 million in 2020, further building on strong momentum this year, according to market analysts. It’s expected the figure will surpass EUR 175 million by 2026, which represents a compound annual growth rate of 11.3%.

The US is currently the biggest market for recycled carbon fibre, with a 30% market share valued at EUR 31 million, closely followed by China. Manufacturing powerhouse Germany is projected to hit the EUR 30 million mark within next five years. One of the factors is the inclusion of composites in its well-established automotive sector.

Major funding for Vibes

The University of Limerick (UL) is involved in a multi-million R&D initiative, called the ‘Vibes Project’, to boost the recyclability of composite materials used in the construction, aerospace and automotive industries. It is a pan-European collaboration between several research groups and industry stakeholders from countries including Spain, Italy, Greece, France, Belgium and Germany with a budget of approximately EUR 5.3 million…

Read the full article in the Plastics Special, published in our latest issue >>

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