Putting Waste to Profitable Use: Carbon Fiber and Food Scraps

More than two dozen Washington companies and organizations presented solutions to save water, energy, and wasted material during the CleanTech Showcase, presented by the CleanTech Alliance on Monday. Two that caught my eye are focused on putting waste material to beneficial use, and doing so locally.

The Composite Recycling Technology Center in Port Angeles is aiming to reuse scraps of carbon fiber composite, which Washington’s aerospace industry produces in abundance. Impact Bioenergy, meanwhile, is making small-scale anaerobic digesters to put food waste to use where it’s generated.

—Washington state sends 2 million pounds of carbon fiber composite—the fabric-like material now used in everything from the Boeing 787 to golf clubs to submersible hulls—to landfills each year, an amount that’s expected to double by the end of the decade with the ramp-up of manufacturing of the 777X. The Port of Port Angeles wants to capture that waste, worth an estimated $50 million, and reuse it for vehicle components, building materials, renewable energy systems, and any other application that demands light, strong, stiff, and durable material.

The port, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, is developing a Composite Recycling Technology Center (CRTC) in a surplus 25,000-square-foot building adjacent to Fairchild International Airport. The goal is to grow a composite recycling industry in the state by identifying and developing applications and manufacturing techniques, training workers (particularly people out of work thanks to recent mill closures), and hosting startup companies that could use tooling and manufacturing equipment.

It is on track to begin accepting a relatively small quantity—about 2,000 pounds—of waste epoxy resin carbon fiber composite next year. The goal is to scale up, as new tools and processes are developed, to as much as 1.3 million pounds a year by 2021. Geoff Wood, a composites consultant working with the port, said the CRTC, which would become a stand-alone nonprofit, is negotiating supply agreements with aerospace manufacturers now.

Many of them are willing to donate their scraps or even pay to have the material recycled, given that they’re already paying to send it to a landfill, he said.

New carbon fiber composites cost between $65 and $100 per pound. The recycled material is worth about $45 a pound.

“Now that the material costs are so much lower than it would be if you’re using virgin material, it really opens up a huge spectrum of opportunity,” Wood said.

The carbon fiber I-beam pictured above was made from scrap material sourced from a Washington aerospace company (not Boeing). It costs about as much as an equivalent aluminum structure, Wood said, but it is only one-third the weight, and it doesn’t expand and contract nearly as much as aluminium.

Impact Bioenergy is building small versions of the anaerobic digesters that create energy and sustainable fertilizers from waste at dairies, landfills, and other large facilities. “This is really about miniaturizing technologies to enable more people access to on-site power generation,” company president Jan Allen said.

The Shoreline, WA-based company recently marked the first U.S. sale of its HORSE microdigester. That’s an acronym for “high-solids organic waste recycling system with electrical output.” It’s about the size of a car and costs less than $40,000. It’s designed to consume about 25 tons of food waste, grass clippings, paper products, liquids, and lots of other organic materials per year.

The HORSE.

The 30-day anaerobic digestion process creates gas that can be stored in an integrated tank and used to fuel an electricity generator or burned for heating, lighting, and other applications. It also produces clean, fossil-fuel-free fertilizer and soil amendments.

The microdigesters are designed for hyper-local applications, with the inputs and products of the digester coming from and going to locations within a one-mile radius. “We’re trying to take the truck out of the equation,” Allen said. (The company makes larger-capacity digesters, too.)

For example, Fremont Brewing is planning to feed one with wort, spent yeast, and other beer-making leftovers. The nearby Seattle Urban Farm Company would take the resulting fertilizer, Allen said. The arrangement, managed by ForTheGood Public Benefit Corp., was the first U.S. sale for the HORSE. Another unit was sold to a customer in British Columbia.

Allen sees a significant market for these products as restaurants, corporate and school cafeterias, food processors, and grocery stores look for ways to deal with their waste and generate their own energy. And that market has growth potential as more cities ban organic waste from the garbage, as Seattle did this year.

“This organic waste issue is universal,” he said.

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