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Carbon fibers: ecological material seeks recycling channel

Aviation, wind turbines, automotive, boating, bicycles, sports equipment… All these sectors have in common that they are very interested in carbon fiber composites. As solid as steel, but much lighter, they have all the qualities… except that of being recyclable. At least for now. Because the challenge whets the appetite of many start-ups that have embarked on the adventure: finding a solution to recycle carbon fiber composites, if possible while retaining all its qualities, and limiting the ecological cost of operation.

In 2019, carbon fibers represented only 1% of the overall production of composites, with around 100,000 tonnes produced, for a market estimated at 24 billion dollars. However, this emerging sector is booming, with annual growth estimated at 11-12% per year. Three sectors monopolize half of the market: wind power, aeronautics, and the automobile, but carbon fiber composites could invade all sectors: sports equipment, mobility, telecoms, or even plumbing. “Tomorrow, water heaters could be made of carbon fiber composite, they would then be lighter and stronger, therefore with a longer lifespan than metal,” said Abdelaziz Bentaj, founder of Xcrusher, which is developing recycling technology. carbon fibers.

Because if the material interests more and more manufacturers for its properties of solidity and lightness – which allows, for example, substantial fuel savings -, it remains very expensive (between 33 and 55 euros per kg according to Xcrusher) , and above all very little recyclable. But solutions are emerging, making it possible to recycle, ecologically, this increasingly popular material.

Mechanical recycling

This is what Fairmat offers, a deeptech start-up born in October 2020 specializing in the mechanical recycling of carbon fiber composites which raised 8.6 million euros in September 2021. Its robots learn to cut the composite, thanks to an artificial intelligence, which makes it possible to obtain carbon bricks, explains its founder Benjamin Saada: “We find a basic material with very high performance, which we sell, available to all industrialists.”

Advantage of this technology, unlike its competitors who often seek to separate resin and carbon fibers using heat (pyrolysis) or solvents, Fairmat requires little energy and therefore CO2 emissions. Approximately 9 kg of CO2 for one kg of recycled composite, compared to approximately 50 kg to produce one kg of “virgin” composite, for materials, in turn recyclable, which have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years. With marketing having started in November 2021, the start-up has already opened a first production site in Nantes and secured 1,000 tonnes of material to be recycled per year, for a total capacity of 5,000 tonnes per year for the moment. It already estimates its market share at 35% of industrial carbon fiber waste available in France.

Aircraft dismantling

A solution that has captured the attention of Dassault Système, Siemens Gamesa (second European leader in wind power) or Tarmac, a company owned by Suez, Airbus and Safran, European leader in aircraft dismantling, for R&D partnerships . “There has been carbon in all aircraft since the 1980s. But until the A380, it made up less than 5% of the weight of the aircraft, says Sébastien Medan, infrastructure, health and safety and environment director at Tarmac. Since then, this share has only increased. In the A350, 90% of the aircraft’s weight is made of carbon fiber composite.” The company now generates between 150 and 200 tonnes of composite waste per year. A volume that could turn around ten thousand tons within 10 to 15 years.

“In airplanes, there is only one new waste that really poses a problem for its end of life: carbon fiber composites, and it is the one that will become more and more important”, worries Sébastien Medan, while the carbon parts of end-of-life aircraft are now incinerated or buried.

Tarmac has therefore signed a non-exclusive contract with Fairmat to provide it with as much composite as necessary, to “bring out a sector that can handle large volumes”. Provided that the costs are not skyrocketed. “We do not have a commercial agreement with Fairmat, we do not yet know how much their management of our waste will cost us. We are ready to invest a little to reduce our impact, but it is not possible that this will cost us costs twice as much.”

Multiple possibilities

Be that as it may, the needs will be such within a few years – Fairmat estimates its total addressable market at 9 trillion dollars over 50 years – that the solution for a circular carbon economy will probably not be unique.

And for good reason, if Fairmat, -which has also announced a commercial contract to recycle production scrap from Duqueine, which produces parts in particular for the A350-, is the only one to offer a solution by mechanical grinding, without separating the resin from fiber, more and more laboratories and start-ups are positioning themselves in this niche of carbon fiber recycling, like Xcrusher, labeled as a Solar Impulse solution.

This company founded in 2006 by Abdelaziz Bentaj works on pulsed power: “we store the electrical energy in a capacitor to restore it as quickly as possible, which makes it possible to release enormous power, equivalent to that of a EPR over 20 nanoseconds, which generates a series of phenomena such as sonic or subsonic shock waves,” explains Abdelaziz Bentaj. A technology that can then be used to recycle bitumen, polyester such as swimming pool liners, or carbon fibers. Xcrusher thus manages to recycle carbon fibers impregnated with resin to remake coils of “virgin” fibers. On this subject, Xcrusher works with Suez Environnement, delegate of Airbus waste to recycle its production offcuts. As for already laminated composites, such as wind turbine blades for example, Xcrusher manages to grind them into micron powder, capable of modifying the conductivity of a surface. Mixed with paint, this powder could for example allow a wall to become tactile.

Die to build

Whatever the solution, if manufacturers seem convinced of the need to recycle their carbon fiber composites, there remains the problem of outlets. “Technologies, there are plenty of them, but if they don’t find a buyer, it’s useless. What will count for the emergence of a real carbon recycling sector is to have a reliable outlet, someone who will be able to consume this material”, warns Sébastien Medan.

If these opportunities still seem in their infancy, Fairmat remains confident. Already a supplier to a company manufacturing vaccine production machines, a bicycle manufacturer and a French start-up in connected objects, the start-up sees its recycled composite in particular replacing aluminum in all objects that need strength, such as tennis rackets, or car bodies.

“There is no question of producing planes or wind turbines in recycled composite, assures Benjamin Saada. The priority is that the planes be light, safe and consume less, and that the wind turbines produce. On the other hand, in all the (other) sectors, the question must be asked: is the environmental sacrifice really worth it?

And Abdelaziz Bentaj adds: “the carbon fiber market has an exponential future that could allow us to get out of the deadly mining industry for many materials.”

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