In this comprehensive guide, we answer the important question of `is carbon fibre a sustainable material?` and more questions about environmentally-friendly strengthening solutions
When it comes to strengthening buildings, bridges, and other structures – there’s no denying that carbon fibre has earned its place as the solution of choice. It’s incredibly light (lighter than steel, in fact), superhero-level strong (can be up to 5 times as strong as steel), and it reduces the number of men and equipment you need working on a project. And that’s just the beginning of a long list of pros! But with specialist construction workers (like us) opting to use carbon fibre on any strengthening and rehabilitation project possible, here begs the question: Is carbon fibre a sustainable material?
As specialist contractors who are dedicated to Net Zero and minimising our industry’s overall effects on the environment, it’s only right that we know the effect that excess carbon fibre use is having on the planet. In this comprehensive guide, we explore the heavily Googled `is carbon fibre a sustainable material for strengthening?`.
If we’ve missed anything, then please let us know via our contact form – sustainability is a huge part of our ethos here at CCUK and we’re always happy to talk about the steps we take to reduce our carbon footprint, one project at a time.
Is carbon fibre a green material?
…Yes and no! Carbon fibre comes in several forms – some take much longer to degrade and are tougher to repurpose – thus, certain types of carbon fibre are greener than others. At CCUK, we endeavour to use low-carbon categories of carbon fibre wherever possible, ensuring the carbon footprint left by our projects remains minimal. It is worth noting that high carbon content does not always lead to a contribution to our carbon footprint – the science behind it is far trickier to quantify.
One type of carbon fibre that is considered `green`, is lignin-based carbon fibre – a natural resource with 50%-71% carbon content – which can be used on general applications with low thermal conductivity, high-temperature resistance, and projects that require minimal mechanical work.
Lignin-based carbon fibres are favoured for low-cost applications due to their green reproducibility (how easy it is to reproduce and recycle) – among many other things, such as their high-strength, high-tensile properties. It makes sense that lignin-based carbon fibre is sustainable, given that it is a natural resource found in the cell walls of plants.
Is carbon fibre biodegradable?
Carbon fibre is not currently biodegradable. Because carbon fibre is a composite built to hold its strength and shape – most carbon fibres are difficult to recycle and repurpose – especially since they cannot be melted down and used to make new products or items.
Though, since carbon fibre is made to last for at least 50 years, there is little to no need of revisiting a carbon fibre strengthening project, which in turn saves on material waste and the need to recycle. It’s worth noting that although carbon fibre is not biodegradable yet, certain elements of it are prone to degradation, such as the resins used to bind the fibres together.
Can carbon fibre be recycled?
While carbon fibre as a product is not biodegradable, some aspects of carbon fibre – like the resin from carbon fibre reinforced plastic (CFRPs) – can be recycled relatively easily. This is done using a recycling process called pyrolysis, where high heat is used to burn the resin off wherever the carbon fibre reinforced plastic has been used.
It is important to know that carbon fibre can be damaged during certain recycling processes, and the matrix resin materials may not survive. But certainly, if you wanted to dispose of the carbon fibre altogether, it can be done through grinding and breaking down the fibres by using very hot temperatures.
Is carbon fibre harmful to the environment?
When we say harmful, we are talking about how much C02 is emitted during the manufacturing process of carbon fibre materials. Carbon fibre takes a lot of energy to manufacture – largely due to the oxidation and carbonisation processes. While we can’t alter how much energy is needed to produce our wonderous carbon fibre materials, we can control the type of energy that is used at the very beginning of the product’s creation (obviously, this isn’t something CCUK do. We apply and work with carbon fibre, not manufacture it (yet)! But we can be mindful about the history of our carbon fibre and choosing one with a cleaner, greener origin).
So, without giving you a full science lesson in generating energy – we will tell you that renewable energy (hydro and wind power) is the way forward for carbon fibre production. If non-renewable energy is used to manufacture your carbon fibre, the co2 emissions generated can rack up to be detrimental to the environment (20 tonnes of co2 compared to 1 tonne of carbon fibre, for example). Choosing responsible material providers is something that companies are quite often in charge of – depending on the country you live in and what kind of resources your suppliers have access to.
So, how environmentally friendly is carbon fibre?
Like any material that require a long and intense manufacturing process, carbon fibre has the potential to have a heavy effect on the environment. But, if the supplier of your carbon fibre is carefully chosen and your specialist contractors do a good job the first time to reduce the risk of redoing the project – carbon fibre can last 50+ years and reduce the need for material waste in turn. Our Technical Director Jayesh Nandwana is collaborating on several studies into the environmental effects of Carbon Fibre Strengthening, click here to contact Jayesh for more info.
Book your FREE site visit & quote for carbon fibre strengthening today
Do you think your upcoming project will benefit from incorporating carbon fibre strengthening? Get in touch with our specialist contracting team today – we use carbon fibre in the vast majority of our strengthening and rehabilitation projects including pipes, sewage works, bridges, and buildings.
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