UK Collaboration Eyes Sustainable Composites

 - July 21, 2020, 8:15 AM
Eventually composite parts like this GKN-manufactured component will need to be disposed of, something that the Sustainable Composites initiative hopes to facilitate.

As the aviation industry increasingly looks to incorporate composite materials into aircraft designs, UK researchers are launching an initiative to drive the development of sustainable materials and recycling technologies.

The Sustainable Composites initiative will bring together industry, academia, and government to collaborate on research that participants hope will address some of the complexities involved with recycling composites and build on a rapidly expanding £2 billion global market for end-of-life recycling. The National Composites Centre (NCC) and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) lead the initiative, announced earlier this month by Nadhim Zawahi, UK undersecretary of state for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.

“As home to some of the world’s leading researchers and pioneering research and development facilities, the UK has a fantastic opportunity to create value from waste across a whole range of sectors,” Zawahi said. “The important initiative we’re launching today will help develop light, durable, and recyclable composite materials—not only saving vast amounts of energy but opening up new opportunities for some of our most critical industries.”

In aerospace, the recycling rate of metallic aircraft is as much as 85 percent. The value of end-of-life market for aerospace alone—including recycling and component resale—totals more than £1.5 billion annually. Over the next two decades, some 12,000 airliners will reach the end of their useful life. The UK share of the market amounts to about £300m per annum, Sustainable Composites partners estimated.

Composites, which are in demand for their lightweight, strong, and durable qualities, will become an increasing part of the retirements. Airliners with carbon fiber materials are beginning to enter the waste stream. But organizers of the initiative say the path for recycling such materials is not as developed or understood. Composites makers produce some 110,000 tonnes of carbon fiber materials in the UK alone each year for various industries, but an estimated 15 percent will get reused or recycled.

Typically, composites have been composed of layers of materials and resin that are heated and compressed. While they can have a longer lifespan, “unpicking these elements in a recycling process is difficult, and current recycling techniques often degrade the material’s performance, reducing their value and offering limited applications,” organizers said. “In addition, more than 95 percent of composites are made from raw materials and resins that are derived from oil, making them unsustainable.”

The partnership will look at the entire lifecycle of composites and with the goals of accelerating the development of new recycling technologies and creating new sustainable composites made from materials such as vegetable waste, corn, nutshells, and algae.

Work already is advancing on composites recycling. NCC has developed a process with Oxford Brookes University that dis-bonds composite materials through heat. CPI, meanwhile, has explored means to develop sustainable products using municipal solid waste. Others include West Midlands, UK-based ELG Carbon Fibre, which is the world’s first commercial recycler of carbon fiber composites.

The Sustainable Composites partnership plans to develop a series of research and development projects through coordinated efforts across the composites supply chain, including materials and other manufacturers, chemical suppliers, and recycling companies. The projects will be designed to advance new technologies, investigate feedstocks, and develop product design and manufacturing processes.

One such project, “Steam to Value Stream,” involves a steam process developed by B&M Longworth that could be used to reclaim resin and fibers. Then, team members will eye the use of HiPerDiF technology developed at the University of Bristol to realign fibers.

Another project, “Bio-Bolster,” will research bio-derived resins for high volume manufacturing.

“We have the expertise in the UK to take the lead in developing the technologies and processes that make composite materials a net-zero carbon alternative,” said NCC chief executive Richard Oldfield. “We need to accelerate that innovation and lock in sustainability from design to end-of-life.”

“We welcome any activities which contribute towards the development and application of sustainable composites,” said Sue Partridge, head of the Wing of Tomorrow Program at Airbus. “This will be a contribution towards reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 by enabling climate-neutral aviation and we look forward to seeing the initiative progress.”