PROFACTOR: A New Life for Fibre Composite Materials

The composite material is being spun to a bolt of cloth by a machine

Fibre composites – the materials that, for example, the mighty rotor blades of a wind turbine are made of – almost always end up in landfill at the end of their useful life with no prospect of recycling. The European research project MC4 aims to solve the major challenges that recycling these materials presents. A total of 15 European companies and research institutions are involved in the research work. The three-year project has a total budget of EUR 7 million and is lead-managed by PROFACTOR.

Fibre composite components have the advantage of low weight and high strength. They are indispensable for numerous engineering applications in fields such as aerospace, automotive engineering and wind power plants. After a useful life of 15 to 30 years, 98% of this material currently ends up in landfill. Every year, approximately 110,000 tonnes of carbon composites and 4.5 million tonnes of glass-fibre composites are consumed. The environmental impact of this should not be underestimated.

The research project “MC4” (Multi-level Circular Process Chain for Carbon and Glass Fibre Composites) aims to solve the considerable challenges posed by recycling these materials and make a circular economy possible for carbon fibre composites and fibreglass. This should have the additional effect of strengthening Europe’s competitive position, thereby reducing dependency on non-European sources.

To achieve this, a number of different approaches are being adopted because the costs of the primary material differ considerably. “The recycling potential of the cheaper fibreglass is markedly less than that of the significantly more expensive carbon fibre,” explains project manager Christian Eitzinger of PROFACTOR.

Experiments are under way to separate the fibres from the resin in carbon fibres in a chemical process as gently as possible so that the recovered fibres can be used to produce new fabrics. Quality assurance plays a key role here, since it is important to guarantee that the recycled material can be used for higher-end applications as well. Alongside PROFACTOR GmbH, the Linz-based spectrometer manufacturer i-RED is also involved in the project. i-RED has the task of ensuring reliable resin identification using methods of spectroscopy. This is essential for efficient presorting and consequently for precise control of the chemical separation processes.

With regard to fibreglass, attempts are being made to reuse the entire composite as it is. For this, special resin systems are used that make it possible to reshape a component at the end of its (first) useful life and reuse it elsewhere.

With the aid of suitable quality classification of the recovered material MC4 will make a recycling rate of approximately 60% possible within supply chains.

Further processing of recovered carbon fibre. © STFI/W.Schmidt