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Carbon Fiber Composites Increasing As Recycling Candidates In Aftermarket

Of all structural elements on aircraft, carbon fiber materials have been the most arduous to recycle.

In early December, Boeing and ELG Carbon Fibre announced they would partner to recycle excess aerospace-grade composites from 11 Boeing manufacturing sites. Will this partnership improve prospects for recycling carbon composites when aircraft are dismantled?

Aircraft recycler Universal Asset Management commends Boeing and ELG for their environmental and economic advances. “As early adopters of carbon-composite recycling, they have elevated the aviation industry as leaders in recycling,” says Ingrid Protacio, UAM VP of integration, operations & marketing. “However, it does not affect the recycling of legacy or new-gen aircraft, as the partnership targets the recycling of virgin composites that have not yet been installed on aircraft,” Protacio notes. Recycling legacy or new-gen aircraft relies on harvesting and recycling carbon composites installed on operating aircraft, “something UAM has been able to do.”

The UAM exec says that UAM is the first company to completely recycle carbon fiber from a formerly-operated commercial aircraft. “The resulting second-generation carbon fiber is fit as a raw resource for industrial use. It is a feasible supply for advanced manufacturing supply chains used by automotive and other industries needing cost-competitive carbon fiber.”

Of all structural elements on aircraft, carbon fiber has been the most arduous to recycle. Protacio says the past 15 years had not yielded a viable solution for recycling carbon fiber back into manufacturing. But UAM has now used a recycling technique based on chemolysis, which decomposes substances into simpler elements using chemical agents. “However, it is the preparation and harvesting of the carbon fiber from actual aircraft components that differentiates UAM’s recycling efforts from those that recycle carbon fiber from manufacturing sites.”

Protacio says, ELG’s process to recycle excess composites from manufacturing will improve aviation’s impact on carbon fiber supplies. She notes that carbon fiber is increasing dramatically in aircraft production, with modern aircraft now made of approximately 50% composites, versus 1970s models manufactured with less than 1% carbon-based materials.

And in the aftermarket, the increasing availability of composites in younger retiring aircraft is an opportunity for recycling. “Carbon-composite recycling adds value to aviation aftermarkets, the value of a retired aircraft marked for disassembly,” Protacio stresses. “By extracting value out of previously-unrecyclable components, there is now value to be found, where it was not possible before.”

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