By Eric Peterson | Aug 10, 2020
Maxey first learned about composite materials at his high school job in the late 1990s. "I worked at a bike shop in Michigan when I was a kid, and carbon fiber was all the rage back then, making bikes light and strong and fast," he says.
Atop a car, a frame got smashed in an unfortunate collision with a customer's garage, and Maxey dissected it. "I took it apart and came to realize this material is much different than traditional metal, steel or aluminum," he says.
A decade later, after working in oil and gas and other industries, Maxey had the aha moment that led to Vartega. "I realized carbon fiber was just a high-value textile and we could apply some of the processing from oil and gas, using some of the equipment I was familiar with to recover that," he says. "I did a bunch of market research and came to realize how much waste there really is . . . and realized there was an opportunity there with some technology."
A stunning rate of 30 percent waste in carbon fiber manufacturing intersected with "unmet demand for low-cost carbon fiber," he adds. "We recognized with our materials an opportunity to focus on the post-processing of carbon fiber." The company's patented process -- chemistry-based solvolysis as opposed to the heat-based status quo -- produces material with the same properties as virgin carbon fiber.
Vartega's long-term strategy involves a restructuring of the supply chain. "Our customers are the specialty plastics companies, so think DuPont, BASF, Solvay, Celanese," says Maxey. "They take our carbon fiber and they mix it with the thermoplastic. Imagine, if you will, a big plastic pasta-making machine. They take the plastic pellets, they feed them in, they melt them, and mix in our dry ingredient -- which is the carbon fiber -- and extrude these plastic noodles, which they cool and they pelletize. The pelletized material is for injection molding, going into high-volume applications for car parts, sporting goods, and industrial applications. If you don't pelletize them and keep them in strand format, it's for the 3D-printing filament. We've got a couple projects on that as well."
Carbon fiber is sourced from manufacturers in Colorado and both coasts. "It's all manufacturing scrap. We've got material aerospace, we've got material directly from the carbon fiber manufacturers, and fabric manufacturers. We've got a pretty diverse supply chain on the input side."
Plastics are typically nylon and polypropylene, he adds, common materials in the automotive world. Maxey says selling points are "strength, stiffness, and weight reduction. With the recycled content, you get lower cost, and with the injection mold, it's a format that's easy to manufacture. They've been using glass-reinforced and fiberglass-reinforced plastics for these products for a long time."
R&D is ongoing, but Maxey highlights a couple of early adopters. Colorado-based X-HURL is experimenting with Vartega's materials for a stick for the Irish sport of hurling in lieu of the traditional ash wood. "We've got a composite stick we're working with him to develop," says Maxey. "It's a really cool application for our materials where you can benefit from the strength and stiffness."
San Francisco's Blackbird Guitars also uses Vartega to supply material for a special order of its Clara ukulele's fretboard. "That's a really cool application because it's a higher stiffness, and the composite material allows it to stay in tune better and have better tone," says Maxey.
"We've got programs in development with several of the major specialty plastics companies," he adds. "The term you hear more and more is hardware as a service, so [the business model] is a subscription basis rather than a traditional license."
A move in 2019 quadrupled the size of the floor plan. "We've moved into a bigger space. We've got about 10,000 square feet."
Grant funding from the State of Colorado helped the company to launch pilot production. "We make the carbon-fiber bundles in-house, and we also have the capability to make the thermoplastic pellets, so we've got a twin-screw extruder here," says Maxey. "That allows us to take recycled plastics in-house and actually make 100 percent recycled content carbon fiber-reinforced thermoplastic."
Challenges: Long sales cycles and the rate of adoption. "That is certainly a challenge -- of getting customers to make those commitments," says Maxey. "We're seeing a lot of good things happening with a lot of our customers, but the reality is the outlook on sustainability has only recently become a deciding factor for a lot of these companies. It's cool now that it is, but working the last several years to get to that point has been a challenge."
In automotive, he adds, "There's incentive for innovation, but it just takes time."
Opportunities: Automotive, additive manufacturing, and consumer electronics are top targets.
"Body, chassis, some structural applications, interiors as well," says Maxey of the automotive opportunities. "They're happy to save a pound here or there. You'll see some applications where we can replace a hood and save 50 to 80 pounds." Electric vehicle manufacturers "are relying on a lot of legacy materials to cut their teeth, then they can think about what materials do for them and why that's important."
Needs: About $5 million in financing. "We're raising capital to support our 24-month strategic plan," says Maxey. "That's going to allow us to expand our capacity pretty significantly."
The current output is about 200 pound a day, but Maxey says that will increase by 5 to 10X with the expansion, but notes, "The big opportunity at the end of that is deploying our technology onsite with partners. The modular capability of our recycling platform, that's where it gets really interesting and it can close the loop for our partners. . . . We can actually help them recover their waste and turn it into something useful."
"As far as Colorado goes, we are very interested in finding local users of our materials," says Maxey, describing an outreach initiative to injection molders. "There's a lot of stuff that doesn't require the automotive qualifications that we can start supplying material for by next month.