Today carbon fiber is heralded for its strength, its rigidity and its ability to be cast in shapes that would be virtually impossible with other materials. Carbon fiber is now commonly used in high performance automobiles, and in the world of sporting goods with everything from skis to bicycles to golf clubs. It is used as casing for laptops and even has been utilized as a material for cutting edge jewelry makers looking to go cutting edge.
Of course the biggest use of carbon fiber is in the aerospace industry, and the new Dreamliner airplane is made of carbon fiber. This material allows for weight savings while still providing that strength and rigidity. Composite materials thus offer a multitude of benefits today.
One irony is that composites are often universally referred to as “space age” when in fact composites are not really all that new. A composite is one that features a multitude of materials, whereby the different materials still remain physically and chemical separate and distinct within the finished structure. In other words, this is about layers of material. This is what gives the finished product — such as bicycle frames and jet aircraft, which are made of long fibers of carbon, its strength and rigidity.
Thus plywood is a type of composite, and all composites have a dirty secret — these are often very hard to recycle. In the case of carbon fiber it is a far bigger problem.
Carbon Fiber´s Carbon Footprint
Because it is a composite, carbon fiber is difficult to recycle, but it gets worse. By its very nature it is neither biodegradable nor photodegradable. It is simply a product designed to last and last. For the user that is really good news. That means that bicycle frame will last for many long rides, and flyers should take comfort that the plane will stand the test of time.
That is all good, until the product reaches its end of life. The good news here is that aircraft are flying longer and longer and a carbon fiber body will endure years of changes in pressure, temperature and other extreme conditions. In the case of a large aircraft small cracks, dings and scratches can be repaired and the structural integrity maintained.
The same cannot be said for bicycles, tennis rackets and other products that take advantage of carbon fiber. While there are companies that can repair a crack in a carbon fiber bicycle frame, the falling price of the materials makes it easier just to replace it instead. The result is that a product that doesn´t biodegrade could be going to a landfill — where it could take hundreds of years or longer to break down.
Recycling is beginning, and in the bicycle industry the largest makers including Giant, Trek and Specialized are beginning to address the problem. But there is another issue, carbon fiber isn´t easy to recycle.
To recycle carbon fiber it is cut down into one inch strips. These cannot be reused in the place of virgin carbon fiber as it wouldn´t have the strength or rigidity necessary for most products. In fact, it isn´t even possible to cut down the strips from a used up Dreamliner and turn into a bike, at least not at present.
Instead carbon fiber is cut down into the strips and melted, where it can be transformed into a thermoplastic. This has benefits, and some recycling efforts are turning the recycled carbon fiber into phone cases, laptop shells or even water bottle cages for bicycles. But that´s a lot of cases, shells and cages from one bike. Imagine how much a single automobile body would produce, not to mention a Dreamliner.
Not a Dream But a Nightmare
Recycling itself has a dirty secret. It really needs to be cost effective to make it worth the time, effort and most importantly the energy used. And with carbon fiber it hasn´t reached the levels of any“¦ yet.
With all recycling it is worth considering the amount of energy that the recycling effort uses — or potentially saves. In the case of recycled soda pop cans made from aluminum only five percent of the energy is used to recycle versus what would be used to produce a can from virgin aluminum. This has in turn created a market whereby it is more cost effective and more energy effective to recycle. It is why there are deposits on cans. So far there is no similar offering in savings of energy or money, and thus few outside the world of carbon fiber are spending the time looking at it.
However, the various industries involved are considering this very closely. As noted bicycle manufacturers — who of course note the green alternative transport that bicycles provide — are leading the efforts. And fortunately companies such as Toray in Japan, which is currently one of the world´s largest producers of carbon-fiber, are trying to address the issue of carbon fiber recycling before it becomes a serious problem.
Dirty Production and Cheaper Products
The other dirty secret of carbon fiber is that its clean lines, smooth texture and often inspired shapes suggests that it is the product of skilled craftsman. This is only partially true. Whereas wood, steel and other materials required someone to actually shape those materials, carbon fiber allows for fantastic shapes dreamed up on a computer in a 3D CAD program and made reality through 3D printing techniques.
After a model is created an actual product can be produced using carbon fiber. This has streamlined the design process, but the skill is mostly used in the computer program. The question to ask is whether this is the same level of artistic skill and “feel” as someone creating a model using older traditional methods.
There is also the issue that carbon fiber factories are far from clean looking. The products may have clean lines, but the production line is one of cut fibers, resins and other materials. It is in a word quite dirty with lots of left over materials — which as with the finished products are not easily recycled.
The final part of the equation is that carbon fiber has long been the body material of a Ferrari automobile, costing more than many houses. Now the material is making its way down market. The prices for bicycles, tennis rackets and golf clubs are falling as well. That means more people get to experience this “space age” material but it just adds to the other problems.
Whereas scrap metal is picked up when left on the curb, will we ever see a point when the junk man wants an old bike frame made of carbon fiber?
Image Caption: A Ferrari branded bicycle, built by Colnago at the Colnago Factory museum outside Milan, Italy. (Credit: Peter Suciu)
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