Washington is well established in most segments of the composite-materials supply chain. From Lamborghini’s advanced composite laboratory in Seattle, to Toray Composites’ and SGL Automotive Carbon Fibers’ plants in Tacoma and Moses Lake, respectively, to Boeing’s new Everett plant for composite 777X wings, to the many makers of the tooling and equipment needed to put composites to work, this state has become one of the world’s leading centers for composite materials.
But one prominent piece is missing in that chain from research lab to end use: What happens when it’s time to throw the stuff away?
Too often, the end point of that supply chain is the landfill, not only for products that have outlived their usefulness but also for the scrap, trims and other waste materials that result from production processes that use composites. The Washington State Department of Ecology estimates that about 2 million pounds of carbon-fiber composite material in Washington ends up in landfills every year.
The good news is that there’s now a concerted effort in Washington to figure out how to keep the stuff out of landfills, in ways that backers hope will result in jobs and economic benefit. The Port of Port Angeles in September began work on the Composite Recycling Technology Center (CRTC), a 25,000-square-foot facility that will house laboratories, classrooms and manufacturing space. Due to open next June, the CRTC will have multiple tenants and objectives. Peninsula College’s Advanced Manufacturing – Composites Technology training program will set up shop there to prepare students for careers in the industry. The center will also work with companies that want to test ideas for products that could be made with recycled carbon-fiber composites.
These products could include components for lightweight vehicles or support structures for solar panels. Geoffrey Wood, technology lead for the project, says CRTC organizers are open to suggestions and projects. “We are looking for people with great ideas,” he notes. “What should we do with it? What would you not do with it?”
Raw material for the center’s training and R&D work would come from composites manufacturers. The center plans to use what’s known as pre-preg material, in which the fibers and a binding resin have already been combined into a fabric but haven’t been molded into a shaped product or component.
On the other side of the state, Washington State University’s Composite Materials & Engineering Center (CMEC) has been researching multiple types of composites, including carbon-fiber and fiberglass.
In one project, researchers worked with Triumph Composite Systems in Spokane on recycling composite materials used in such aircraft components as flooring and ventilation. In another, Janicki Industries, a Sedro-Woolley company that produces tooling for forming parts using composite materials, and Global Fiberglass Solutions of Mill Creek tested a process for recycling wind-turbine blades. Possible applications for the material include flooring tiles and highway barriers.
For some commodities, such as steel, aluminum, glass, paper and even certain plastics, recycling technologies and their own supply chains are well established. That’s not the case for composites, and it’s not because some of the materials are new. Fiberglass, for example, has been around for decades.
“There isn’t any technology out there,” says Karl Englund, a research associate professor at WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture who has been working on composite recycling for more than a decade. “It ends up being very difficult. Once you get a carbon-fiber composite and you cure it into its form, you’ve either got to have it as that part or you throw it away because there’s not that much you can do with it. Finding options to work with that material is not the easiest thing to do.”
The problems start with returning the scrap and waste to a usable raw material. “Where I’ve focused is trying to keep it as simple and as cheap as possible,” Englund says. “You’re already dealing with a waste product. You can’t add a lot of energy, a lot of chemicals, a lot of money into it and expect something to come out of it that’s going to be economically viable.”
After all the hassles of collecting, handling and processing the material, Englund adds, “You end up with a short, mangled fiber.” Since glass fiber is relatively inexpensive to begin with, putting a lot of costly energy into a process that results in a low-value product is “not a good business scenario,” Englund explains. To complicate things further, techniques for recovering something useful differ according to the type of fiber and process used to produce the material.
Beyond the challenge of coming up with a recycled material is the matter of selling it.
“If you’re making fuselages or you’re making overhead bins for planes or working on floorbeds for cars, that recycled product that you make out of that is probably not going to go in the same application,” Englund says. “It ends up being a different market segment, a different processing strategy that these guys aren’t used to. That gets to the point [of], ‘Well, we don’t want to deal with that. It’s outside our wheelhouse. We want to stick with what we know and run that.
Larger companies like Boeing and Toray Industries, a Japanese composite-materials company whose North American operations are based in Tacoma, may have the interest and research budgets to support R&D in composites recycling, but smaller companies — and in Washington, there are lots of them — do not. “It’s a pretty difficult thing for somebody to come up with a new and innovative way of finding reuse for these materials,” Englund says.
The Port Angeles project has federal and state funding, and WSU’s work with Triumph was funded with a grant from the Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation, a partnership between industry and universities in Washington to help develop new aerospace technologies.
Unfortunately, Englund says, recycled materials research doesn’t attract a lot of attention. There’s no single federal agency with trash as its purview, he notes. The best hope for moving composites-recycling technology to commercialization, he believes, is with a push from private industry. That’s happened before: Development of wood-plastics composites into common building products like decking boards, providing a market for recycled plastic, was largely industry driven.
“Industry is very interested in moving this forward,” acknowledges Jennifer States, director of business development for the Port of Port Angeles. Developing the technology for recycling composites into new products “positions us for other opportunities,” she says. In future phases, the CRTC, which is partnering with WSU’s CMEC, plans to look at how to recycle composites that have already been made into products, and to examine other composite materials, including fiberglass.
Recycling carbon-fiber and fiberglass materials will get an outside push as other countries, including the United States, embrace European-style regulations requiring manufacturers to assume responsibility for their products all the way through disposal. “A lot of these guys are selling to Europe,” Englund says. “They see this picture being painted for them that we do need to take care of our product as it goes through its entire life and when it’s finished.”
There’s also the matter of public image. “It definitely paints an uglier picture when you say you’ve got all these cool materials that make planes lighter and cars lighter and stronger but all the scraps are going into the landfill,” Englund declares.
While it ultimately proved economically feasible to recycle metal, composites recycling is nowhere near that place yet. “The smarter ones realize ‘maybe we can make some money out of this.’ That ends up being an attractive option for them too. But if they can at least negate their costs of landfilling it, they would be happy.”
Right now, landfill costs are much lower than recycling costs in the United States. If landfill and disposal costs go up, if recycling technology improves and if new end-markets are found, the economics could change and composites recycling and reuse might become as familiar as it is for metals or paper.
Englund says it comes down to basic values. “We have to get to a point,” he argues, “where we value our materials more.”