Rock West Composites is a Salt Lake City company that furnishes carbon fiber sheets, panels, prepregs, tubes and other products to manufacturers. Like so many other companies in the industry, Rock West is betting on a future that sees carbon fiber become as popular as aluminum, steel, and other materials. The industry is not there yet. To get there, something has to be done about recycling.
It has been stated by numerous experts that the future of carbon fiber relies on the industry’s ability to come up with cost-effective recycling. In short, carbon fiber production is quite costly due to the amount of energy that goes into producing carbon fiber tow, thread, and fabrics.
The high cost of production is that which has prevented the automotive industry from embracing carbon fiber as a complete aluminum and steel replacement. Other industries that favor carbon fiber are in the same boat. They would gladly embrace the material if it didn’t cost so much. Enter recycling.
Recycling Brings Down Costs
We tend to think of recycling in terms of reducing waste and protecting the environment. Both are undeniably a big part of the recycling paradigm. But recycling also brings down costs by widening the market. To understand this, consider the fact that there are different grades of carbon fiber.
The purest and strongest virgin carbon fiber is used for critical applications like constructing wing and fuselage panels for aircraft. A manufacturer like Boeing cannot afford to use anything less than the best when building their world-class airplanes. Conversely, the material in a carbon fiber wallet doesn’t have to be of the highest possible quality. Manufacturers can use a lower grade material and still make an excellent finished product.
Without large-scale recycling though, wallet makers do not have access to a lot of recycled product. So they spend more than they have to on virgin carbon fiber. If they could use more recycled product, they would. This would bring the price of their wallets down while leaving more virgin carbon fiber for more important applications.
More Revenues, Less Waste
Continuing with that same example, let us say that upwards of 75% of all carbon fiber waste were being recycled into lower grade materials. Those materials could be used for an endless number of applications that don’t require the structural integrity of virgin material.
Manufacture and sales of those products would increase revenues for manufacturers. As revenue goes up, so do profits. The demand for carbon fiber increases as well. Eventually carbon fiber becomes as mainstream as many other materials we now use for manufacturing, causing prices to fall further in line with mass production.
The Other Side of the Coin
The other side of the recycling coin is essentially where we are today. Current recycling efforts are both scarce and costly. As such, carbon fiber remains a niche material that goes primarily into high-end products. For example, a carbon fiber bicycle costs a lot more than aluminum one. A car with a carbon fiber body is prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest consumers.
As long as carbon fiber remains out-of-reach as a manufacturing material for the mass market, its cost will remain high. Someone has to pay the high cost of producing carbon fiber, and fewer buyers means each buyer pays more.
As you can see, recycling holds the key to the cost of carbon fiber as a manufacturing material. As such, it also holds the key to carbon fiber’s future. If it is to ever replace other materials on a large scale, recycling efforts have to improve dramatically.