Part 3: Simplified LCA of Carbon Fiber Composite Recycling & Materials

In the third part of FAIRMAT’s Simplified LCA series, we discuss how the environmental impact of FAIRMAT’s products and services is quantified, compared, and contrasted to that of the typical commercial alternatives.

What will you find in this article? 

This article is an elementary review of Fairmat’s Simplified LCA Report by Greenflex. Follow the article to understand why Fairmat’s recycling service and materials are reliable to support your enterprises’ sustainable campaigns.

  • Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the estimation of the environmental impact of a product system throughout its life cycle (emissions produced, resources consumed, etc.) 
  • Greenflex conducted a ‘simplified’ LCA with the aim of understanding the environmental impact of Fairmat’s service and products in comparison to widely-used recycling methods and existing composite product alternatives.
  • The impact assessment was based on Fairmat’s contribution to 6 carbon footprint indicators: climate change, water use, resource use, land use, acidification & eutrophication. In this article, we largely focus on climate change.

Simplified LCA of Fairmat’s Recycling service

Fairmat partners with a community of suppliers of Carbon Fiber Composite (or CFRP) waste, like the post-industrial and post-consumer parts, recycled using Fairmat’s Mechanical Recycling process.

With this LCA study, we were able to assess the impact of waste management of 1 kg of composite waste by Fairmat’s in-house recycling method, compared to other existing waste management processes. E.g., the impact of mechanical recycling v/s landfilling of waste.

Types of end-of-life composite waste management processes studied and compared:

  1. Landfilling
  2. Incineration
  3. Mechanical Recycling (Fairmat Recycling service)
  4. Thermal Recycling (Pyrolysis)
  5. Current French end-of-life waste management: 63% Incineration, 37% Landfilling
  6. Current industrial waste management context: 90% Landfilling, 9% Incineration, 1% Thermal Recycling

Both ‘direct’ and ‘avoided impacts’ are assessed to measure these processes’ overall impact accurately. In other words, how does each process directly impact the six carbon indicators (water, land, etc.), and what other adverse impacts can they avoid?

For instance, mechanical recycling (i.e., production of secondary or recycled materials) implies avoiding producing virgin materials for further use, unlike landfilling the composite waste playing a minimal role in circularity.

Relative GHG emissions results of FAIRMAT’s Recycling process, compared to other end-of-life waste management processes
Relative GHG emissions results of Fairmat’s Recycling process, compared to other end-of-life waste management processes.

Takeaways from the comparative study: 

Although Mechanical recycling of the composite waste results in partially-degraded secondary materials, it outperforms with approximately 9 times lower carbon emissions than the widely-used alternative – thermal recycling.

Simplified LCA of Fairmat’s Composite Materials

Carbon Fiber Composite Materials, in their life cycles, impact both environmental inputs (use of raw materials and energy) and outputs (material losses generated during Cutting). 

Fairmat’s Recycled Composite Materials are of 2 types: 

  1. Compounds 
  2. Laminates

The materials’ individual contributions to the environmental impact vary due to their different compositions and production methods. For example, environmental profiling of Fairmat’s compounds revealed that energy consumption is the biggest contributor (82%) to the environmental impact. Whereas chemicals represented 65% impact of laminates due to virgin resin usage.

Note: This is a partial (cradle-to-gate) product life cycle study. Fairmat’s products’ applications are not precisely defined, or rather, are too many to account for. Therefore, assessing the materials’ life cycle only from resource extraction to the factory gate is practical. 

Carbon Impact Comparisons 

Equivalent weights are used for accurate comparisons between the Fairmat materials and their industrial alternatives. In the study, 1 kg of Fairmat material (UD or BD) is substituted with the equivalent weight of the material in comparison.

E.g., 1 kg of Fairmat BD (Bidirectional) material can be equivalent to 2 kg of recycled steel. Likewise, 1 kg of Fairmat UD (Unidirectional) material can be equivalent to 2.7 kg of Glass fibers. This comparison is based on similar mechanical properties.

1. Carbon Impact of Fairmat Material v/s Isotropic Alternatives (BD)

Why is it relevant to replace the isotropic materials (aluminum, steel, or virgin PVC) with Fairmat laminates?

  • 1 kg of Fairmat BD material has an impact of ≈ 4 kg CO2e. In contrast, an equivalent amount of steel makes up for ≈ 7 kg CO2e.
  • The comparative study highlights that Fairmat material is the lightest material for comparable mechanical properties for isotropic applications.
Relative Carbon Impact comparison between FAIRMAT Material and other substitutable Isotopic Materials
Relative Carbon Impact comparison between Fairmat Material and other substitutable Isotopic Materials.

2. Carbon Impact of Fairmat Material v/s Unidirectional Materials (UD)

Why is it relevant to replace the unidirectional material with Fairmat laminates?

  • 1 kg of Fairmat UD material has an impact of ≈ 4 kg CO2e. In comparison, an equivalent amount (0.6 kg) of other Carbon Fiber laminates makes up for ≈ 7 kg CO2e.
  • The comparative study also highlights that Fairmat laminates have a lower environmental load than virgin carbon fibers.
Relative Carbon Impact comparison between FAIRMAT Material and other substitutable Unidirectional Materials
Relative Carbon Impact comparison between Fairmat Material and other substitutable Unidirectional Materials.

How can your enterprise use these Simplified LCA results to assess carbon impact?

For better management of your enterprise’s composite waste: 

  • Consider assessing how your enterprise manages carbon fiber composite waste. Current common industrial practice is to landfill 90% of the waste, incinerate 9%, and thermally recycle the remaining 1%. 
  • The most practical recycling options should be explored to reduce the carbon impact significantly in cases where the waste was only treated or discarded.
  • If previously the waste was being recycled partly or entirely, it is recommended to switch to Fairmat’s Mechanical recycling to reduce its environmental impact by almost 9 times.

“The Mechanical Recycling implemented by Fairmat has less impact than other end-of-life treatments currently existing for composite waste, including chemical recycling by pyrolysis.” Greenflex

For switching to greener alternative composite materials (from Aluminum, Glass fibers, etc.):

  • Compare the mechanical properties of Fairmat’s material (rigidity, strength, etc.) with the material you’re looking to replace.
  • If the two materials are mechanically equivalent, check if the application is environmentally appropriate.
  • Think about the end-of-life of your material or check if its recycling rate differs greatly from that of Fairmat’s materials.
  • For more details download Fairmat’s Simplified LCA Report.

Also, read part 1 and part 2 of the simplified LCA series. 

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