As we all know a significant and increasing proportion of cars are made of plastic, including thermoplastic composites. After the cars have been scrapped, this material can be used for technical components, for example, rather than burning it as waste, as is standard practice.
Brightlands Materials Center at the Brightlands campus in Geleen recently launched a field lab to study whether the material can be processed to make raw materials for new products. “Recycling this material to produce a new, reusable and high-quality material means a reduction in CO2 emissions, representing an important step towards a circular economy,” says Marc Huisman, program manager at Brightlands Materials Center.
A second life for thermoplastic composites
Thermoplastic composites are becoming increasingly popular in industry. When heated, these combinations of plastics with different fibers are ideally suited to making products and components, which must be produced in the hundreds of thousands at a favorable cost price. The potential applications are nearly endless: dashboards, bumpers and seats for cars, parts for medical equipment, computer housings, and from furniture and facade elements for buildings to ski boxes for cars. In principle, extrusion and injection molding techniques make every shape possible.
“This is all well and good,” says Marc Huisman “but the problem is that thermoplastic composite material ends up on the scrap heap or in the incinerator at the end of that car or laptop’s life cycle. We’re talking about many hundreds of tons each year. It’s bad for the environment and contradicts our ambitions to build a circular economy where the goal is to reuse materials as much as possible.”
The Sustainable Thermoplastic Composites Field lab
Not only that, but it’s all unnecessary. Various studies in laboratories and modest practical tests have shown that when properly recycled, thermoplastic composites can easily serve as a raw material for new composites in technical components. A field lab was set up for this purpose at the Brightlands Materials Center, the Sustainable Thermoplastic Composites Field Lab. This lab processes used materials to create a new, basic raw material known as recycled long fiber thermoplastic composite, or reLFT for short. It involves a production line where the waste material is first shredded into small chips around 15 millimeters in size, which can then be mixed in an extruder with other (bio-based) materials and even waste plastic, in order to ultimately convert these to a mold through injection molding. A car dashboard or seat, for example. “It might sound simple, but it isn’t. The challenge is to keep the length of the fiber intact; this is the only way to use it to make a new, usable strong material. If it is possible to preserve the length of the fiber, it’s up to the industry to develop concrete applications.”
We work with several partners
The field lab is an important link in the Recycling Thermoplastic Composites Testing Grounds project. This is a cross-provincial OP-Zuid project with eleven partners and a value of over three million Euros, half of which is financed by EFRO funds with contributions from the provinces of Zeeland and Limburg. TNO is the author of the project and has explicitly chosen Brightlands Materials Center. “There are other locations that are doing research on thermoplastic composites,” Marc Huisman explains. “However, I don’t know of any other place where so many facilities have been bundled into a single ecosystem like the one at Brightlands Chemelot Campus. We have access to a complete pilot line where we can process a hundred kilos of material per hour. This is sufficient for practical testing purposes. It’s also enough to design and make many different products using the extruder. Brightlands Materials Center also has technicians and scientists at its disposal plus there is a link with the industry based at Brightlands Chemelot Campus, where students, companies and researchers work on new materials.”
A unique ecosystem where testing and experimenting can be done to your heart’s content. “Exactly. It’s also a place where entrepreneurs can go to present their ideas and test the materials themselves. Our explicit intention is to bring in SMEs, since the threshold is very low, and they don’t have to invest in labs and equipment.”
According to all parties involved, there is considerable interest in recycled thermoplastic composite (reLFT). One example is the automotive industry, for which Brightlands Materials Center has set up the Lightweight Automotive program. “First of all, the burning of composite waste is either expected to be banned or become very expensive in Europe. Recycling requirements are also getting stricter. Car manufacturers will have to find a way to dispose of these tons of plastics. At the moment, six million cars end up on the scrap heap every year in Europe alone. The base plates of most cars are made of thermoplastic composite; for those in the know, this is glass-filled polypropylene, which offers a lot of options. Secondly, the car industry is crying out for light materials. Weight is important, especially in electrically powered cars; after all, the lighter the car, the greater the range. Thermoplastic composite can reduce weight by a substantial amount of kilos.”
The expectation is that an earnings model is a real possibility. “Definitely,” concludes Marc Huisman. “This process is perfectly suited to large-series production and so conducive to fast profits. The project is also a perfect fit for the ambitions of the campus and the adjacent Chemelot industrial site to become Europe’s first circular hub. Waste becomes raw material, CO2 emissions are reduced and we are able to contribute to the material and energy transition thanks to the use of (recycled) thermoplastic composites. In our vision, this will be reLFT. Three birds with one stone.