Currently, only 15% of the 110,000 tonnes of composites produced in the UK are reused or recycled (National Composites Centre, 2020). This statistic alone demonstrates the pressing need to develop more sustainable composite materials and solutions.
To address this challenge, HVM Catapult Centres The National Composites Centre (NCC) and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) are joining forces to create the Sustainable Composites Partnership. This national hub aims to accelerate the development of net zero impact composites, processes and technologies in order to transform the environmental and economic impact of the sector.
The Sustainable Composites Partnership
The new Sustainable Composites Partnership was announced on 3 July 2020 by the UK Ministerfor Business and Industry, Nadhim Zahawi MP.
The aim of the initiative is to work with the UK’s growing market for end-of-life recycling technologies, harnessing academic and industrial excellence from across research and development.
To do this, the partnership will launch a series of Kick-Starts, competitions and collaborative R&D projects.
The sustainable composite materials challenge
Due to their lightweight and durable properties, composite materials are enjoying a growing demand from manufacturers across wide-ranging sectors, such as automotive and wind energy. However, these benefits are often dampened by the fact that most are not reused or recycled at the end of their lifespan.
One of the reasons for this is that the complex structure of composites (layers of materials heated and compressed) can be hard to separate during the recycling process. Many composite materials contain resins derived from oil which is also unsustainable.
Other challenges include:
- Limited recycling processes
- Recycling methods that degrade the materials
- Landfill disposal
- Composites derived from unsustainable raw materials such as oil
To combat these issues, the new partnership is seeking to develop innovative recycling processes and technologies whilst at the same time, creating new, sustainable composite materials from bio-based materials such as algae.
This will include exploring alternative recycling methods for carbon fiber and glass.
Another important aspect of the initiative is to improve supply chains to be better connected and help the UK become a world-leader for sustainable composites.
The future of composite manufacturing
Both the NCC and CPI are already paving the way towards the next generation of sustainable composites.
For example, a collaboration between the NCC and Oxford Brookes University saw the rapid and economical separation of composite structures through heat. By adding low-cost materials to off-the-shelf structural adhesives, composite parts could be separated from each other in as little as six seconds with the directed application of low heat without a significant impact on their normal performance. This means composite components may be easily repositioned and reused – reducing manufacturing waste, enabling easier repair in operation, and making them more efficient to recycle.
With the NCC proving that the process can work at scale, it could have a transformational impact on the design, use and end-of-life recycling of a wide range of products, including cars, aircraft and wind turbines.
The HVM Catapult is well placed to help lead the UK towards a net zero future. Our Centres are here to support companies of all sizes develop new technologies for the design and rapid manufacture of high-quality, sustainable composite products.
Discover our composites manufacturing technology capabilities to find out more.