Is Carbon Fiber Recyclable?
Let me ask another question to answer the one above — when exactly can something be ‘recyclable’?
Taking inspiration from the existing definitions of ‘recyclability’ (for plastics), something can be identified as ‘recyclable’ when there exist known processes to sort, collect and recycle it following its use and when this recyclate has a market value and can be reused.
Carbon fiber was not recyclable until two decades ago, and neither was the market ready to use recycled carbon fiber (rCF).
But, the last decade has seen some progressive changes, and there are plenty of reasons why.
Yes, carbon fiber is recyclable. Carbon fiber (and carbon fiber composites) can be recycled using mechanical, thermal, or chemical methods.
Why should Carbon Fiber be Recycled?
There aren’t any dedicated recycling bins for us to toss our production scraps and end-of-life products. What we do have, and what most of us use, are — landfills.
Carbon fiber should be recycled rather than discarded because if not, then soon that will be our only option left.
Let’s take a step back to understand the reasons why carbon fiber went from being non-recyclable to being recycled and reused for applications as outrageous as NASA space shuttles.
- Non-renewable resource:
- Going back to the basics — resources are of 2 types based on their exhaustibility – renewable and nonrenewable. Nonrenewable resources can either be recyclable (like metals) or not (like petroleum).
- Currently, more than 90% of commercial carbon fiber is non-renewable (made from polyacrylonitrile (PAN)).
- This is one reason why recycling the carbon fiber available on the market is just as rational as producing alternative “renewable” carbon fiber (like Lignin-based carbon fiber).
- Carbon fiber is typically non-biodegradable and could last for over 50 years. Isn’t that exactly why we should use it? Well, yes and no.
- Many applications of carbon fiber rely on its durability and longevity — and this also means that after its use, the discarded carbon fiber bike or airplane, for instance, will sit there for years without decomposing.
- Over the course of the next 5 years, a global carbon fiber shortage is expected to give a hard time to the rising demands (285 kt in 2025) in the wind, aerospace, and infrastructure industries, as noted by Composites World.
- While the question that if this is an ‘actual’ problem still lingers — we can certainly avoid it by sharing the demand between virgin and recycled carbon fiber suppliers.
- Almost 14 times more energy is needed in virgin carbon fiber production than compared to steel, and subsequently results in higher greenhouse gas emissions.
- On the other hand, recycling a material produces less carbon emissions than using the natural resource.
- And accordingly, this energy-intensive production and resulting adverse environmental impact can greatly be mitigated by recycling the carbon fiber and reusing it.
- The high-energy use associated with the production of virgin carbon fiber facilitates its recycling at a lower cost.
- And likewise, the costs of recycled carbon fiber are lower, by as much as 30-40%, than its virgin equivalent.
- Fees and taxes associated with the collection and landfilling of carbon fiber waste across most countries can be averted by recycling it. Disposal has always been inconvenient and is probably in the last stretch of its life.
- Most industries are now actively thinking about recycling their carbon fiber waste to cut disposal expenses at a business level.
- Carbon fibers are combined with other materials to make composites. These commercial carbon fiber composites have many light-weight, high-strength, and even aesthetic functions in car hoods, boat masts, shoe insoles, and padel rackets, among others.
The global recycled carbon market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 12% from 2021 to 2031.
Carbon fiber in all its forms — a carbon fiber bike frame or carbon fiber composite production scraps, or an end-of-life airplane — can get a new life through recycling.
Even if recycling carbon fiber is not as simple as picking between plastic and paper — it is, however, possible.