The National Composites Centre is supporting a new consortium that has been formed to address the growing challenge of decarbonisation and recycling of composite materials in the marine industry and beyond, with a long-term aim of creating the UK’s first glass fibre composites recycling and re-use facility of its kind.
Made up of the UK’s leading marine and maritime companies, composites specialists, academic institutions and local government organisations, the ‘Blue Composites Project’ aims to break ground in composites recycling and re-use to address the key environmental challenges facing the UK’s marine industry in its transition to zero emission shipping by 2050.
The collaboration is led by Blue Parameters, a Guernsey based marine consultancy, with the aim of creating the UK’s first large-scale glass-reinforced plastics (GRP) and fibre-reinforced plastics (FRP) recycling facility that will not only look at the process of recycling composite materials but also how the reclaimed materials and fibres could be repurposed for use in new composite components, such as boats, caravans, wind turbine blades and other high-performing products.
There are an estimated six million boats in the EU alone, 95% of which are made of GRP. Every year, around 1-2% (60,000-120,000) of these boats reach the end of their useful life. Of these, only 2,000 are recycled, while 6,000-9,000 are abandoned. Recycling old boats is an expensive business, costing an estimated €800 (£706) for a 7m (23ft) boat, rising to €1,500 (£1,324) for 10-12m (33-39ft) and up to €15,000 (£13,243) for boats over 15m (50ft) long. According to the International Marine Organisation (2017), it is both GRP waste from production processes and end-of-life products that are a huge challenge with around 55,000 tonnes of GRP waste is produced from the UK marine sector every year, with the level expected to increase by 10% per year.
Reinforced plastics used for ship structures are composed of glass fibres embedded in unsaturated polyester resins. Properties of GRP that are particularly useful for marine – and have led to their extensive use for small boats (up to 34m) – are high strength-to-weight ratio combined with good resistance to deterioration upon prolonged exposure to sea water. Lower maintenance costs for GRP hulls compensate for their relatively high initial cost as compared with steel or wood.
Simon de la Rue, director of Blue Parameters Director, said: “We’ve been delighted with the response from both the marine industry and other sectors. This is an opportunity to implement the technology available to further the LCA process and have a significant reduction in environmental impact.”
As the UK’s leading R&D centre for advanced composites, the National Composites Centre is well placed to provide insight and expertise to this consortium having recently completed a project with B&M Longworth and Cygnet Texkimp that successfully reclaimed continuous carbon fibres from a whole pressure vessel using the DEECOM process and re-used them to manufacture a new pressure vessel. This was the first time this process was achieved in the UK, representing a significant milestone in the development of the UK’s composites recycling capability.
Will Grocott, head of Surface Transport at the National Composites Centre, said: “We’re very excited to support this new collaboration. With increasing demand for composite materials in the delivery of net zero technologies, the NCC is working with a range of organisations to find sustainable solutions for end-of-life composites and the associated manufacturing material and consumable waste. We have the knowledge and expertise to drive decarbonisation in the composites industry and across sectors. Together, we need get better and smarter, ensuring that the next generation of high-performance composite products enable a cleaner, greener future for us all.”
The technology of focus for the Blue Composites Project is the revolutionary DEECOM process, developed by British SME B&M Longworth. Originally designed to remove waste polymer from plastics filters and production equipment, the process uses pressurised superheated steam, to penetrate microscopic fissures in the composite’s polymer. Upon decompression, it expands, cracking the polymer and carrying away broken particles. This pressure swing cycle is then repeated until all the matrix (the material suspended in the polymer) has been separated from the fibre, allowing the monomers to also be reclaimed for possible reprocessing. Crucially, the DEECOM process essentially ‘cleans’ the fibre, leaving the primary component material intact and undamaged, allowing for any length to be retained undamaged, providing much more scope for the material to be re-used in a wider range of applications.
Jen Hill, director at B&M Longworth, commented: “We’re so pleased to have our DEECOM technology recognised as the solution for cross-sector circularity in composites. We’ve been calling for a long time for this multi-disciplined approach to tackling FRP waste and we really believe that the impressive line-up of partners and supporters within this consortium are the right people to make it happen. Hopefully this becomes the blueprint for many other plants around the world to tackle waste, produce quality, recycled advanced materials and in turn bring multiple lifecycles to all composites, all while easing the global supply chain shortages.”
B&M Longworth's DEECOM technology has been exclusively licensed by British machine builder and composites technology specialist Cygnet Texkimp. The company is developing it as a tailored solution for the global composites market with applications ranging from marine to wind turbines, automotive, aerospace, rail and construction.
Luke Vardy, CEO of Cygnet Texkimp, said: “The work of the collaboration is ground-breaking in terms of transforming the way we manage marine composite structures at the end of their current life. It provides an excellent platform to accelerate our development of the DEECOM technology specifically for the marine industry but will also deliver valuable capability that the entire composites market can learn from in its pursuit of decarbonisation and sustainability goals.”
Other companies that have pledged to support and explore these challenges with Blue Parameters, B&M Longworth, Cygnet Texkimp and the National Composites Centre are: Scott Bader, Ford UK, Oakdene Hollins British Marine, Gen2Carbon, University of Plymouth, MDL Marinas, Boatfolk Marinas, Maritime UK South West, Truro Recycling, Royal Yachting Association, Peel Ports Group, South Devon College, and The Green Blue.
The NCC, along with CPI, is leading the Sustainable Composites programme, which brings together industry, researchers and composites specialists to address major challenges to sustainable composites develop, recycling and re-use. As two centres of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, this partnership is opening up opportunities for the UK supply chain in a global end-of-life composites component market estimated to be in excess of £2bn per annum.
The Blue Composites Project was announced by Blue Parameters at The Green Tech Boat Show on Thursday 16 June as part of the Clean Maritime Innovation Showcase.