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Managing Editor  | May 2017

Researchers find method for recycling carbon fiber plastic

Researchers at Washington State University have developed a chemical recycling method to break down carbon fiber plastics, which are used in a variety of applications including aerospace, sporting good, and wind energy, according to a report from the university’s website.



Washington State professor Jinwen Zhang with his carbon fiber recycling research team.
(Washington State University)


Previous recycling methods for carbon fiber plastics have relied on high temperatures or caustic chemicals to break down the hard plastic material and, as the article explained, often left the carbon fiber damaged an unusable.


Also, the chemicals that are typically used are hazardous, difficult to rid of, and breaks down the matrix resin in the composites, which leads to further waste issues.


The Washington State researchers turned to milder acids as catalysts in liquid ethanol at relatively ow temperatures to break down thermoset plastics.


The article explained, “To break down cured materials effectively, the researchers raised the temperature of the material so that the catalyst-containing liquid can penetrate into the composite and break down the complex structure. [Researchers] used ethanol to make the resins expand and zinc chloride to break down critical carbon-nitrogen bonds.”


A patent has been filed for the process, which resulted in carbon fibers that were able to be reused.


The research was recently published in Polymer Degradation and Stability. The report’s abstract read:


“Carbon fiber reinforced polymers (CFRPs) with high Tg (>200 °C) are indispensable for aerospace industry where high service temperature is required. Chemical recycling of the matrix polymers for these CFRP composites is more difficult than that of their low Tganalogues.


“In this work, an efficient approach for mild chemical recycling of CFRP with a Tg of ∼210 °C was developed using a ZnCl2/ethanol catalyst system. The high efficiency of ZnCl2/ethanol was attributed to the strong coordination effect of ZnCl2 with the C-N bonds and the strong swelling ability of ethanol, which worked together to break down the chemical bonds of the cross-linked polymer.


“Also, mild degradation temperature (<200 °C) imparted little damage to the recovered fibers. The decomposed matrix polymer (DMP) was in the oligomer form and contained multifunctional reactive groups.


“When DMP was used as a reactive ingredient and added up to 15 wt% to the preparation of new epoxy materials, the resulting cross-linked polymers could still retain the high strength and modulus compared to the neat polymer without addition of DMP.”

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