Boeing and ELG Carbon Fibre have joined forces to recycle aerospace-grade composite material into products such as electronic accessories and automotive equipment.
The agreement between leading aircraft manufacturer Boeing and ELG Carbon Fibre is ‘the first of its kind for the aerospace industry’. The partnership covers the carbon fibre surplus from 11 Boeing production sites and is estimated to reduce solid waste by more than one million pounds a year.
No more technical barriers
Boeing is the largest user of aerospace-grade composites, which it uses to build its 787 Dreamliner and the all-new 777X airplane. And yet, Boeing found that ‘technical barriers’ stood in the way of repurposing material that had already been cured or prepped for use in the airplane manufacturing process. UK firm ELG says it can provide an answer to this problem.
The recycler has developed a proprietary method to recycle cured composites. ELG put the excess materials through treatment in a furnace, which vaporises the resin that holds the carbon fiber layers together and leaves behind clean material.
An innovative pilot project was undertaken in Washington that proves the recycling approach can be scaled up to treat a large material flow. The location in question was Boeing’s production facility for its ‘massive’ airplane wings are made. During the last 18 months, ELG and Boeing saved 1.5 million pounds of carbon fibre. The material was subsequently cleaned and sold to companies in the electronics and ground transportation industries.
Won’t always be a niche
Based on the success so far, Boeing is confident the new agreement will save a majority of the excess composite material from its 11 sites. If so, this will support the company’s goal to reduce solid waste going to landfills 20% by 2025.
Boeing and ELG are considering expanding the agreement to include excess material from three additional Boeing sites in Canada, China and Malaysia. Thanks to these prospects, ELG estimates the number of its employees will nearly triple from 39 in 2016 to an expected 112 by the end of next year.
Boeing goes on to state that it won’t be too long before recycling composites will be ‘as commonplace’ as recycling aluminum and titanium.
Securing long-term applications
‘Recycling cured carbon fibre was just not possible just a few years ago,’ points out Tia Benson Tolle, Boeing Materials & Fabrication director for Product Strategy & Future Airplane Development. ‘We are excited to collaborate with ELG and leverage innovative recycling methods to work toward a vision where no composite scrap will be sent to landfills,’ she adds.
‘Security of supply is extremely important when considering using these materials in long-term automotive and electronic projects,’ comments Frazer Barnes, managing director of ELG Carbon Fibre. ‘This partnership gives us the ability to provide that assurance, which gives our customers the confidence to use recycled materials.’
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