Low cost carbon fiber recovered from recycled sources is on the cusp of becoming a commercial reality, with incremental amounts of industrial quality chopped and milled carbon fiber entering the marketplace around early 2009, according to a just released study by Eldib Engineering & Research, Inc., a Berkeley Heights, N.J.-based consulting firm.
Availability of this recycled fiber would help fill the supply pipeline for chopped and milled material. The low cost fiber, estimated to be one-half to one-third the price of virgin fiber, might open up new uses in high-end autos as lightweighting for fuel economy becomes a growing need. The fiber may be used to reinforce bulk molding compounds (BMC) or used for preformed parts, according to Eldib.
Two companies appear to be close to building carbon fiber recycling plants in the U.S. as early as late 2008: Adherent Technologies (Albuquerque, N.M.) and Milled Carbon Henley (Arden, U.K.). Both of these companies are partnering with Boeing in this effort. All of the carbon fiber recycling processes produce fibers of short lengths so that the final commercial product will be in the milled or chopped form.
Major markets for recovered carbon fiber include compounds for injection molding to impart electrical shielding as well as strength enhancements. In addition, there is a rapidly expanding demand for chopped fiber in syntactic foam for flotation devices used in deep sea oil and gas exploration. Eldib points out that a substantial barrier to the sale of the recovered fiber is the stigma attached to the concept of recycled material and the associated quality concerns. Evaluations in compounds where target property needs are conductivity and strength have provided confidence that the recycled fibers are fully commercially satisfactory. Acceptance by the compounders of recycled fiber is likely to be spurred by the much lower cost and availability. Other potential applications such as a raw material for conductive paper or non-woven mat have yet to be proven but are suggested as additional outlets.
Acknowledging that there are likely to be expected road bumps in the several steps in the overall recovery of the fiber, the multiple companies and forces pushing recycling forward serve to assure a high expectation for success, according to Eldib.