When Bill Carberry thinks of the scrap carbon fiber that’s left over from manufacturing a 787 Dreamliner, he doesn’t see industrial waste headed to a landfill – he sees the makings of new, high-value aerospace products bound for continued life on new airplanes.
“Our research has shown that recycled carbon fiber composite material is comparable in strength and quality to new fiber,” said Carberry, leader of the airplane and composite recycling program.
According to Carberry, recycled carbon fiber is ideal for nonstructural aircraft components from arm rests to smaller parts, such as electronics casings, brackets and hose clamps. In 2011, Carberry’s group built a proof-of-concept galley door from carbon fiber manufacturing scrap collected at Boeing’s 787 factory in Charleston, S.C.
In addition to the research Boeing is doing at its own factories from Charleston to the Seattle area, the company is working with leading academic institutions around the world – including the University of Nottingham in the U.K. – to develop aerospace uses for recycled composites.
“Recycled carbon fiber components still need to meet the aircraft’s design requirements and mission; they can’t increase the cost or weight of the part,” Carberry said. “It’s a challenge, but the benefits are worth it if we can reuse our composite scrap and put it back into new manufacturing.”
The Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association estimates recycling carbon fiber uses 95 percent less electricity and is 30 percent less expensive than making new composite material.
Finding new ways to reuse and recycle carbon fiber will take on greater environmental and financial significance in coming years as the number of largely composite 787s rolling out of factories in Charleston and Everett, Wash., continues to increase, along with military aircraft, like the V-22 produced in Philadelphia, Pa.
Carberry said the industry now faces the challenge of creating a market for recycled fiber. “I’m confident that that by the time the first Dreamliners begin to retire from service, they will be easier to recycle than aluminum aircraft.”
“Three years ago, if I had told somebody we were going to make galley doors out of recycled carbon fiber scrap, they would have laughed at me. But we can do that today,” he said.