What is “excess” carbon fiber?
It is carbon fiber in any form or combined in any mixture which in its existing state, quantity or location does not have enough value to be consumed by the owner or user in their operations. Historically this material has been referred to as scrap.
How much excess carbon fiber is generated annually?
Globally about 30 million pounds or roughly an amount equal to about 20-25% of annual total consumption in 2015.
Why such a high scrap rate and is that rate coming down?
Because carbon fiber provides unparalleled physical and mechanical properties, it is specified in some of the most demanding, complex and high value applications known. Compared to mass materials such as steel and aluminum, the downstream processing and applications scales are many, many times smaller so processing is not feasible for waste reduction pay back. Also, carbon fiber is nearly always combined with complex chemistries in forming parts such that any scrap generated is no longer in a form that can be considered for reintegration into the upstream process.
How does Carbon Conversions change that paradigm?
Carbon Conversions pioneered the creation of 3-Dimensional preforming of reclaimed carbon fibers so a zero waste, closed loop manufacturing process for excess carbon could be accomplished at commercial scale The art of safely reclaiming carbon from complex chemical mixtures at scale has been transferred to a science over the past decade and now on to cost stable manufacturing processes into industrial feedstocks.
Why not repurpose excess carbon rather than recycle it?
Repurposing excess carbon will become an important and necessary part of the carbon fiber ecosystem. Currently it is a niche business aimed more or less at downcycling excess carbon into less complex or demanding niche products. Recycling is often better suited for large scale manufacturers, especially when closed loop recapture of their carbon excess is desired or the user desires to have their proprietary content eliminated.
Is recycled carbon fiber as good as new (prime) carbon fiber?
In terms of individual fiber performance 95-97% of the original mechanical property is retained. The largest difference is the physical form. Prime carbon fiber is sold as long continuous strands capable to transmit shock, load and stress over a large area versus recycled carbon fiber that is discontinuous. In some applications such as carbon tooling or for improving impact resistance, discontinuous carbon fiber can be advantageous or a valuable compliment to continuous carbon fibers.
What standards, certifications or third party endorsements are available with respect to recycled carbon fiber?
This area is still in development and it has become clear the well-known principles of sustainability and environmental stewardship apply so assessments have been conducted to establish a starting point and to set a series of attainable goals. One key element is to implement pedigree of the incoming excess carbon to the finished product. This has been implemented. Many customers need to know there is a level of source qualification and control that is reliable. Certifications by qualified third parties will begin to occur in the very near future.
How much does recycled carbon fiber cost and how does total cost as used downstream compare to prime carbon fibers?
The answer depends a lot on the format recycled carbon fiber is delivered. As a chopped, resized product, the cost is about the same as chopped prime fiber. As a nonwoven fabric, about half the cost of woven carbon fabric. For this reason traditional woven users are implementing nowoven as an adjunctive material in their traditionally woven only designs. This is assisting carbon fiber fabrics into greater market acceptance. In 3-D preforms, the upfront cost is higher as a preforming mold must be made. The delivered cost is usually less because downstream lay-up labor is reduced and expensive carbon waste is eliminated.
Where is the recycled carbon fiber (RCF) industry headed?
It is has moved from a science experiment to commercial processing and utilization across multiple continents thanks to more than 10 years and close to $100Mn invested across the industry. The next stage is characterized by broad confidence in RCF products by the design and engineering community accompanied by increased growth and standardization of the RCF product formats. From the carbon fiber customer perspective there is growing evaluation of closed loop carbon fiber processes which Carbon Conversions support with knowledgeable consulting and capability. From a business perspective, commercial business models are evolving rapidly to support the developing ecosystem.