Due to its extremely strong yet lightweight nature, carbon fiber could have significant applications in numerous industries, including aerospace, automotive and energy. However, its high cost is a barrier for many manufacturers.
Vartega, a new technology company based in Colorado, is working to change that. Its team has developed a novel carbon fiber recycling process, with the goal of driving sustainable and widespread carbon fiber adoption.
“Carbon fiber is a valuable material and it doesn’t make sense to send it to the landfill, but historically that is what has been done; we’ve just been burying it in the ground,” said Andrew Maxey, the CEO and founder of Vartega, in an interview with R&D Magazine. “We provide an opportunity to retain that value and reuse it in new applications. It is much less energy intensive to recycle carbon fiber than it is to manufacture virgin carbon fiber and because of that, it is more cost-effective to recycle it. We can take that material and reduce the cost for downstream applications.”
How it works
Much of the feedstock for Vartega’s process comes from high grade pre-impregnated carbon fiber scrap material, such as that used in the aerospace industry where the scrap rate is typically 30 percent. This expensive waste can be recycled and repurposed to minimize lost value and maximize the environmental benefit of carbon fiber. Scrap carbon fiber from aerospace structures can be readily repurposed for use in aircraft interiors, automotive applications, consumer products, and sporting goods.
This process can divert thousands of tons of waste from landfill each year and provide much cheaper carbon fiber products to downstream customers that would otherwise not be able to afford them.
“We are able to take uncured, post-industrial carbon fiber scrap and essentially wash the resin off,” said Maxey. “Once we do that we are left with a dry recycled carbon fiber that has the same mechanical properties as the original carbon fiber.”
Exactly how the carbon fiber is recycled depends on its original form. Continuous carbon fiber that is either woven into fabric or all oriented in the same direction can be recycled and maintain its full fiber length. Manufacturing scraps—essentially what is leftover when carbon fiber is cut from the pattern— are chopped up and added into thermoplastics.
“In that case, the mechanical properties are still the same, but the properties of the composite may be different because of the overall fiber length,” explained Maxey. “Discontinuous fiber reinforced thermoplastic would have different properties than a continuous fiber composite.”
Vartega has already started to establish itself in several sectors. The company created its own 3D printer filament with its recycled carbon fiber inside, which is available for purchase. The idea behind this product is to offer an affordable carbon fiber option to the everyday person interested in 3D printing, said Maxey.
“It is very good print quality, it is easy to work with and it has very good mechanical properties,” said Maxey. “We see that as a really exciting area where hobbyists and makers can buy a material with recycled content that is just as good as the new material.”
Vartega is already working with several industry partners, including Alchemy Bicycle Co., also located in Colorado, which is utilizing Vartega’s technology to make its bicycles more sustainable.
“They hand-make their carbon fiber bike frames, and we recycle their scrap and then provide back to them 3D printing components created from that, which can be used to prototype and design new bike parts,” said Maxey.
Vartega is also working on recycled carbon fiber applications for the automotive industry, including within injection molding, under-the-hood applications, and interior and exterior body panel applications.
Within the automotive industry carbon fiber has significant benefits.
“You can use less carbon fiber to make a comparable part than you could out of aluminum or steel, and as such that helps reduce the weight of cars, improve fuel economy, and for the new generation of electric vehicles, increase electric range as well,” said Maxey. “Battery packs for vehicles that weigh several hundred pounds, new technology like big screens, sensors for LiDAR and other autonomous capabilities—all of these things add weight and manufacturers for sure are interested in reducing the vehicle weight and remaining competitive on that front. “
Vartega is also working on developing several long-term projects and is looking to commercialize technologies in several other areas. Their goal is to operate carbon fiber recycling facilities in two domestic markets situated close to major suppliers and waste generators within the next five years.
“Our technology is modular, which allows us to locate close to the source scrap and also close to the customer,” said Maxey. “We will be deploying commercial systems here in the next 12 to 24 months to support those downstream customers and associated demand.”