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Carbon fibre: the wonder material with a dirty secret

March 22, 2017

Carbon fibre: the wonder material with a dirty secret

Mark Harris
Wednesday 22 March 2017 05.00 GMT

Carbon fibre is increasingly celebrated as a wonder material for the clean economy. Its unique combination of high strength and low weight has helped drive the wind power revolution and make planes more fuel efficient.

Carbon fibre turbine blades can be longer and more rigid than traditional fibreglass models, making them more resilient at sea and more efficient in less breezy conditions.

Auto makers are also waking up to the material’s potential to make lighter and more efficient vehicles. McLaren recently announced plans to open a factory in Sheffield to manufacture carbon fibre sports cars, and BMW’s i3 is fitted with a carbon fibre passenger unit – the first such mass-produced car.

But carbon fibre has a dirty secret: the hi-tech material is wasteful to produce and difficult to recycle.

Excess waste for landfill
To become the strong, light composite material industries love, carbon fibre is combined with a plastic polymer resin. But the manufacturing process, in which sheets of composite material are often laid up by hand, is wasteful.

By the time they’ve been trimmed to size, almost a third of these carbon fibre sheets end up on factory floors, according to recycling company ELG Carbon Fibre. Where the material does make it into products, most of it will ultimately end up in landfill, the firm says.

A report (pdf) in February from the environmental charity Green Alliance listed carbon fibre as one of several novel materials that could create waste problems in the future unless swift action is taken to make it ready for recycling and reuse.

Read more at The Guardian.

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