The Challenge Of Recycling Carbon-Fiber-Reinforced Plastics

An article in Plastics Today highlights how the increasing adoption of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics is forcing the adoption of new recycling innovations. Is carbon fiber plastic? Yes, and the problem is that commonly used plastic recycling technology damages the carbon fibers by first burning and charring them and then chopping them up, making them unsuitable for building structural components. CFRPs cannot be melted or reshaped using conventional methods and be converted into a material with the same structural strength.

The trick is developing new recycling technology that either preserves the carbon fiber length or allows the recreation of it during the process. One of the most intriguing approaches is that of using a solvent, either at room temperature or with a little heat, which does not char or break the carbon fibers, making the recovered material suitable for creating structures.

Another method of recycling carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics uses a melting process that converts the polymers into a carbon-fiber-reinforced composite. This process is still under development and needs to be scalable to become effective in an industrial environment.

Even conventional plastic recycling methods can be useful in certain applications. The process can be used to recycle CFRPs into material that can build nonstructural products such as cabin sidewalls, vehicle trucks, roofs and rear seats. However, the recycled material has low-performance characteristics as compared to virgin material.

No process that is now under development is perfect for recycling carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic. More development needs to happen so that CFRPs can be transformed into a recycled material with the same or similar structural strength as the original material.