Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Recycling Composite Materials

For many reasons, composite material products need to have a better solution for their end of life. Thermoset composites have difficulties in reprocessing, however thermoplastic composites are showing some promise. Technology Review discusses some breakthroughs in recycling PET, which may provide some foundation for recycling fiber reinforced PET in the future. Essentially, researchers at IBM have figured out how to chemically break down PET to their original parts, which then can be used again. Traditional recycling of PET uses heat and pressure to melt down the plastic.

Although recycling composite materials is necessary, composites still provide valuable environmental savings during their life. In composite transportation products such as marine, rail, aerospace, and automotive, the fuel saving and carbon reduction benefits can outweigh the downside of not being able to recycle. Here is a Swedish study of a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA for short, and likely an acronym we hear often) of fiber reinforced composites.

In the study, the researched compared the LCA of a steel ship with composite sandwich structures. Even though steel is recycled in the end, the emission reductions and corrosion benefits of using composite materials outweigh the recycling benefit.

Now, imagine the LCA comparison when fully recyclable composites are used...

Photo Credit: jsbarrie via flicker

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