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New UK Initiative to Develop the Next Generation Of Sustainable Composite Materials

A new initiative brings together the UK’s composites expertise to quickly turn research breakthroughs into industrial applications.

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Led by the National Composites Centre (NCC) and the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI)–two of the seven High Value Manufacturing Catapult centers–Sustainable Composites is a partnership between industry, academia, and government that will harness the UK’s world-leading composites research and technology development capabilities to capitalize on this rapidly growing circ. £2bn (approx. $2.5 billion USD ) global market for end-of-life recycling. 

Composites are in high demand by manufacturers developing the next generation of lightweight, super energy-efficient planes, cars and wind turbines. Compared to metals and other materials, composites are lighter, stronger, more durable, longer-lasting, and allow more flexibility in design. But 85% of these valuable materials are currently not being reused or recycled at the end of their life. 

Today’s advanced composites are complex structures comprising layers of materials and resin that are heated and compressed to create the materials. Whilst they can increase the lifespan of products by decades and reduce their environmental impact, unpicking these elements in a recycling process is difficult, and current recycling techniques often degrade the material’s performance, reducing their value and offering limited applications. In addition, more than 95% of composites are made from raw materials and resins that are derived from oil, making them unsustainable. 

Sustainable Composites is set to address these challenges by accelerating the development of new recycling technologies in the UK while simultaneously creating new sustainable composites made from bio-based materials including vegetable waste, corn, nutshells and algae. 

Launching Sustainable Composites, Nadhim Zahawi MP said: ​“As home to some of the world’s leading researchers and pioneering research and development facilities, the UK has a fantastic opportunity to create value from waste across a whole range of sectors. The important initiative we’re launching today will help develop light, durable and recyclable composite materials — not only saving vast amounts of energy but opening up new opportunities for some of our most critical industries.”

The UK is already leading in ground-breaking technologies for composites recycling.

The Sustainable Composites partnership will deliver a series of R&D projects that bring together companies across the composites supply chain–from materials manufacturers, to chemical suppliers, manufacturers, and recycling companies. The projects aim to identify and mature new technologies, investigate new material feedstocks (such as bio or waste), and develop the product design and manufacturing processes that enable these new materials to quickly enter the supply chain and be successfully recycled at the end of their life. 

The ​“Steam to Value Stream” project is investigating how an innovative steam process developed and patented by B&M Longworth, an SME based in Blackburn, UK, can be used for reclaiming resin and fibers from a composite component. The team will then explore how these materials can be used in the HiPerDiF technology developed at the University of Bristol–a novel fiber realignment process that takes discontinuous short fibers and aligns them into ready-to-lay composite tapes to be used in aerospace, automotive, and wind turbine manufacturing.

The ​“Bio-Bolster” project will explore bio-derived resins for high volume manufacturing applications, and includes developing an understanding of supply chains, design requirements and performance characteristics to produce a novel material with less impact on the environment.

Richard Oldfield, Chief Executive at the NCC, said​“We have the expertise in the UK to take the lead in developing the technologies and processes that make composite materials a net zero carbon alternative. We need to accelerate that innovation and lock-in sustainability from design to end-of-life–and that’s where the NCC can help. By joining forces with CPI in this initiative, we are bringing together our engineers, our technologies and our network of universities and companies to build a robust supply chain in the UK.”

Frank Millar, Chief Executive Officer at CPI, said: ​“The Sustainable Composites partnership builds on successful pilot projects delivered in close partnership between industry and the research and technology community. Adopting and embedding sustainable manufacturing practices through the whole of the composite materials lifecycle is a compelling opportunity to reduce the environmental impact from these products.”

This initiative relies on the involvement of organizations from across industry to feed in ideas and shape future work. Companies who would like to get involved are invited to visit www​.nccuk​.com/​s​u​s​t​a​i​n​a​b​l​e​-​c​o​m​p​o​sites or email sustainable.​composites@​nccuk.​com.

Watch our short animation video introducing the Sustainable Composites partnership: https://​youtu​.be/​-​A​N​Q​R​f​epXOY


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