“This method we think could have a lot of immediate industrial applications, with lots economical and environment benefits,” former Georgia Tech postdoctoral researcher Kai Yu, now a professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, said to the magazine about his research, published earlier in July by Advanced Functional Materials.
“It’s very easy to operate, so there’s no limit to the size,” he said. “It can be easily scaled up.”
Its unclear what proportion of automotive carbon fiber — if any — uses vitrimer epoxy, which is different from what the piece calls “traditional carbon fiber.”
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“The polymer matrix (in traditional CFRP) is usually crosslinked, just like the rubber, and it can’t be simply melted; it’s very hard to strip away the polymer to reclaim the embedded carbon fibers, which are more valuable to recycle,” Georgia Tech professor Jerry Qi told Research Horizons.
“Vitrimers contain dynamic bonds that can alternate their structure without losing network integrity under certain conditions,” he said. “We let alcohol, which has small molecules, to participate in the network of alternating reactions, which effectively dissolved the vitrimer.”
Recycling is important not just from a cost perspective. Different materials industries competing for automotive body space tout their recyclability on environmental grounds — which on top of the feel-good benefits keep regulators happy.
The study was sponsored by not only the National Science Foundation, but also the Chinese National Natural Science Foundation and the Digital Manufacturing and Design Centre and A*Star Public Sector Fund in Singapore.
Kai Yu, a former postdoctoral researcher in The George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tec, sits behind a piece of carbon fiber composite immersed in alcohol. (Rob Felt/Georgia Tech)
A piece of carbon fiber composite immersed in alcohol. (Rob Felt/Georgia Tech)