In recent years, carbon fiber has gained widespread acceptance in the cycling industry for its ability to produce stiff, lightweight components. The downside is that the material cannot be recycled, which sort of undermines the whole ‘53 miles per burrito‘ concept.
Currently, the material can be ‘downcycled‘, but the process is energy intensive and often highly toxic. The issue is that carbon fiber is made from sheets, which are bonded together by epoxy. To recycle it, you have to remove this epoxy. There are several methods for doing this but in addition to being a pain in the ass to do, the resulting fibers that aren’t as strong.
Recently, researchers at American universities have discovered two different solutions for recycling carbon. The first breakthrough came earlier this year from the University of Colorado Boulder, where a team pioneered a method for soaking carbon-fiber composites at room temperature in an organic solution.
Now a group at Georgia Institute of Technology has developed a method that involves soaking the material in an alcohol based solvent. Their process is focused on carbon fiber that uses a type of epoxy called vitrimer as a bonding agent, so it doesn’t work for all types of carbon. However, their method allows them to recover nearly 100% of the materials.
Both of these new methodologies are still in development, but will have major implications for in the future. According to Boeing, virgin carbon fiber retails for between $15-30 a pound, but the reclaimed stuff goes for one-third to one-half less.
The idea of cheaper bikes is alluring, but the most important story here is the environmental ramifications. Right now, millions of pounds of carbon fiber are sent to the landfill each year. This stuff isn’t exactly biodegradable.
As the material makes its way into more planes, cars and sporting goods the problem compounds itself. That hasn’t stopped us from reviewing carbon fiber wonder bikes, but it doesn’t make us feel good about it (and that’s before we start discussing the working conditions overseas). The good news is, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.