Recycling composite materials: a priority

Recycling of composite materials: a priority

The market for composite materials is growing exponentially and should continue to do so in the coming years. Composite materials are perceived as a virtuous and efficient alternative to traditional materials but generate significant waste. Consequently, recycling is becoming a priority concern for the industry.

What is a composite material?

By definition, a composite material is an assembly of at least two components that differ in shape and chemical composition and are immiscible.

Most often, such material is composed of two elements:
– A reinforcement that forms the skeleton supporting the mechanical efforts (glass fiber, carbon fiber, aramid fiber…)
– A matrix that can be organic (resin), ceramic (silicon carbide), or metallic (aluminum, magnesium…).

Composite materials are all around us: waterproof clothing, bullet-proof vests, reinforced concrete, plywood. Because they have the properties of all the materials used, they are particularly efficient and can thus fulfill technical functions.

Therefore, they are attracting growing interest from many industries: aerospace and defense, automotive and transportation, wind energy, construction and infrastructure, marine. Although they have not yet reached their full maturity, these composite materials are inclined to become more widespread.

carbon fiber composites

carbon fiber composites

The composite materials market is growing rapidly

After being slowed down by the health crisis, the global market for composites, known as innovative or high performance, is expected to grow from 88 billion dollars in 2021 to more than 126 billion dollars by 2026.

Although still a tiny part of the overall composites market, carbon fiber composites, also known as carbon fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP), are increasingly appealing to design and manufacturing engineers due to their unique physical and mechanical properties.

Lightweight and highly durable, these composites prove essential to the green transition. In the aeronautics and automotive industries, for example, they help reduce aircraft weight and thus save fuel. Their demand is increasing, so much so that 2 kg of carbon fibers are produced in the world every second.

The beginnings of recycling for composite materials

Today, the increasing use of these composite materials generates significant waste. For carbon fiber composites, global waste production increases by 12% each year. By 2070, we will reach nearly 190 million tons of carbon fiber waste worldwide.

This amount of waste naturally raises the issue of recycling. Because the structure of these composite materials is complex, it is difficult to recycle them, especially since recycling possibilities vary according to their nature. While processes seem viable for some materials, this is not yet the case for carbon fiber.

Carbon fiber composite waste is generally not sorted or recovered but landfilled or incinerated. As their use becomes more widespread, it is becoming urgent to find suitable alternatives for the end-of-life of these materials and products, to limit their environmental impact. Some solutions exist, such as recycling by pyrolysis, solvolysis, or fluidized bed processes, but they are not yet sufficiently profitable and/or virtuous.

Consequently, Benjamin Saada founded FAIRMAT, a French deeptech company whose ambition is to revolutionize the recycling of carbon fiber-based composites. He explains: “When I took a closer look at recycling this material, I realized that it wasn’t done ecologically. I wanted to think about developing a technology that would meet the sustainability requirements for the transformation of industries. In 2021, we were finally able to make this high value-added material circular much more virtuous due to these new technologies.”