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Making Carbon Fibre Recyclable

The way ahead for carbon fibre is to make it as recyclable as it is light.

Professor Kerry Kirwan, WMG, Warwick

Could you build a proper racing car out of rubbish? Or, to be more specific, could it be built from a recycled material capable of enduring the extremes of a F3 race?

That is where this project all started. We were looking at a wide range of sustainable materials that we could deploy on a ‘green’ racing car (WorldF3rst).

Carbon fibre materials looked interesting and had lots of potential – but only if they could be developed to overcome their environment impact.

The use of Carbon Fibre Reinforced Polymer composites provides more sustainable transportation solutions and reduced carbon emissions through vehicle and aircraft light-weighting. However, Carbon Fibre (CF) production and end-of-life disposal can have a far greater environmental impact than any metal, with up to 40% of CFRP going to landfill.

The overriding ambition was to develop the materials to be equivalent, or at least appropriate replacements, for virgin carbon fibre where it is used in applications where it probably over engineered. Do you need the same material for making jumbo jets as you do tennis rackets, for example?

Working with an industrial partner, we went through a lot of chemistry formulations, processing developments and physical testing. The work varied depending on the priorities of the partner company Gen2Carbon (formerly ELG) who were developing markets in parallel. We also developed demonstrator components to show off the materials potential. A phenomenal amount of work went into accounting for the number of variables and properties, as well as the level of rigour needed to take the materials from a laboratory curiosity to a commercial product that can be designed and engineered into applications. Using the materials for an F3 car really worked to demonstrate them in an extreme environment.

The company has now commercialised different materials for different applications and there is much reduced environmental footprint attached to the recycled materials compared to the virgin materials where it is used. The bigger picture is that the reputation of sustainable materials has been given a boost because they were invariably considered (wrongly) to be inferior.

Instead of the carbon fibre ending up in landfill at the end of life, there is now a whole supply chain that can recover it and a marketplace that wants to use it. And the energy requirements are a lot less than just using virgin carbon fibre.

From that car and the subsequent RCF work, our cross disciplinary abilities in materials, chemistry, processing, engineering, design within WMG at the University of Warwick allowed us to bring those materials through the different technology readiness levels (TRL) to commercialisation with our industrial partner. There aren’t many places that can do the whole TRL span in one place.

And where else could you sell the idea and get funding to build a proper racing car out of rubbish?


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