Carbon fibre has revolutionised design in many industries, with its lightweight and flexible structure helping improve the performance of aircraft, cars, tennis racquets and wind turbines.
- Carbon fibre has allowed manufacturers to create fuel-efficient lightweight products but a lot ends up in land fill
- A surfer says the lighter carbon fibre board is faster and will be ‘absolutely awesome’
- Aside from surfboards, researchers are working on reusing carbon fibre in car parts and cement
But it also holds a dirty secret: up to 95 per cent of carbon fibre ends up in landfill.
That’s about 45,000 tonnes, or the equivalent of four Eiffel Towers worth of material each year.
Because it’s not biodegradable and can’t be melted down and reused, carbon fibre simply sits in landfill forever.
But in recent years, there’s been a push to come up with innovative ways to recycle this valuable material.
It’s what prompted aerospace engineers Dr Filip Stojcevski and Andreas Hendlmeier, along with organic chemist James Randall, to come up with a side project that combined their knowledge of carbon fibre manufacturing, electrochemistry and material interfaces with their love of surfing.
The team of Deakin University graduates have started the world’s first recycled carbon fibre surfboard company out of a small garage in the Victorian surfing town of Jan Juc.
Lighter design creates more speed on waves
Dr Stojcevski said carbon fibre was stronger and lighter than glass fibre, meaning you could use less material, creating lightweight products that were more energy and fuel-efficient.
But while that’s great for the environment initially, what happens to those planes and cars once their first life cycle is over was a big concern to this team of researchers.
“The amount of carbon fibre that comes into landfill each year is mostly from the aerospace industry, as well as the automotive industry,” Dr Stojcevski said.
“So when you create a high-performance product like an aeroplane, all of that needs to go into landfill one day.”
The team set about working out ways to repurpose the material, in an attempt to turn old aircraft and wind turbines, as well as factory off-cuts, into surfboards that were “just as good” as traditional fibreglass boards.
One of the key challenges was ensuring the boards were not too rigid or prone to delamination, due to micro-cracks in the carbon fibre interface.
“What we’ve been able to create is a carbon fibre surfboard out of recycled material … we like to think it’s a bit of a success,” he said.
“All this material from all the aircraft parts and automotive parts would have ended up in landfill, but instead we’ve created the second life form in our surfboards.”
Surfer Luke Rosson took the board out for his second attempt and said its lightweight design generated more speed than a fibreglass board because it did not sit so deep in the water.
“It takes a little while to get used to a new board and this is a bit different to what I usually ride,” he said.
“For a first try, I reckon this thing is going to lead to something absolutely awesome.”
Cement, automotive parts two promising alternatives
Australian National University PhD candidate Andy Di He said the waste in the carbon fibre industry was not just at the end-of-life stage, but also during production.
“About 30 per cent to 50 per cent of all the carbon fibre that is used for production actually ends up as waste,” he said.
“So we definitely need to improve the recycling rate for carbon fibre so we can reduce the amount of this precious material going to landfill.”
He said researchers were looking into substituting metal car roofs, mirrors and suspension with recycled carbon fibre, or mixing it with cement to increase its strength but not its weight.
“Those two are the pretty promising applications for recycled carbon fibre,” he said.
“The surfboard with recycled carbon fibre definitely is a very interesting alternative.”
The surfboard start-up was selected for the SPARK Deakin Accelerator 2020 program, giving them access to mentors and advisors to help get their business off the ground.
While the coronavirus pandemic has created huge levels of uncertainty for the university sector, Dr Stojcevski said it had also highlighted the importance of a strong local manufacturing industry.
“In my opinion, it’s extremely important to continue funding into research because research isn’t just about the academic results, it also allows the foundation for future companies to be built just like ours,” he said.
“This is a way of implementing research into real-world business applications, so it helps our community as a whole … to create the future jobs of Australia.”