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Carbon fibre and the auto recycler

BMW I3 monocoque
When you look at what's happening with the recyclers, maybe carbon fibre won't be all bad! Photo shows BMW's I3 carbon fibre monocoque
Carbon fibre is set to have a big impact on our industry in the future as more an more manufacturers replace heavier materials such as steel and even aluminium with it. With its thermoset qualities, recycling isn’t an easy option and if we’re not careful we could end up with huge volumes of negative value material.

Apart from the incredible strength that comes with carbon fibre, weight savings of 40% over aluminium and an incredible 60% over steel means much lighter vehicles. And it doesn’t stop there, a lighter vehicle requires less power to move it and less force to stop it so you then get a further saving from smaller, cheaper components in the drive train and suspension.

BMW’s recent developments for their i3 and i8 projects point the way things are going. Not only is the i3’s monocoque primarily made of carbon fibre but the company has also shown off a set of ultra light, carbon fibre wheel rims. It doesn’t stop there with seat structures also being manufactured now from carbon fibre plus a host of other structural and trim parts.

Although very light and strong, carbon fibre is expensive which is slowing its progress but manufacturers are looking a various ways to bring the cost down. One way is using recycled carbon fibre (RCF) from the aerospace industry. Here, 50,000 tonnes of CF are used each year and it is estimated that 30% of this ends up as production waste. Much of this waste has not gone through the chemical reaction phases and fibres can be reclaimed for use in less critical applications such as automotive. This gives a cheaper route for parts production. BMW have instigated their own recycling of production waste for parts less critical than structural components.

This is all well and good but it’s not going to help the auto recycler who is faced with a material that is thermoset and cannot readily be recycled. That’s not to say it can’t be. There are companies out there operating and developing pyrolysis systems for separating the carbon fibre strands from the resins. This can then be sold as, chopped strands, matting or purpose designed shapes. This is a simplistic overview and there’s plenty more to this. A great place to look if you’re interested is Composites World’s website - you will find a lot of detail there.

The potential for recycling companies is nicely demonstrated by German metals recycler, ELG Haniel's acquisition of West Midlands based, Recycled Carbon Fibre Ltd. This is a commercial-scale CF recycling plant which is now named ELG Carbon Fibre. What we find interesting is that a traditional metals recycler has recognised the way car manufacture is going and intends to be there to benefit from the growth in CF in the future.

Recyclers admit the demands currently for RCF aren’t great but the sales potential lies with high-volume automotive applications as manufacturers have to demonstrate that there products are satisfying legal environmental targets. Also, according to reports, test have demonstrated that the strength of RCF is well within the fibre producers’ targets for virgin products in industrial applications.

Carbon fibre and its potential to finacially cripple auto recyclers in the futures has been a concern for many in the industry but with capacity and technology improving all the time it should not be long before auto manufacturers take up the RCF available for component manufacture. Commercial recyclers reckon that there is currently a 20-40% cost saving over virgin fibre. Bearing in mind that this is a very young sector, it is possible, as volumes increase and processing costs decrease that carbon fibre from ELVs may well become a valuable commodity, more than compensating for the reduction in metals - one thing is for sure, we need to keep a close eye on developments.

June 2015

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