Employees: 8 (4 full-time, 4 part-time)
Industry: Energy & Enviro
Products: Composites recycling
Founder Andrew Maxey pioneering a chemistry-based process to recycle carbon fiber scrap into new material that's on par with virgin carbon fiber.
Due to their lightweight, durability, and applications for precision engineering, carbon fiber composites are displacing metals in a variety of products. Yet it's no secret that producing them is energy intensive and costly. The carbon fiber scrap rate in aerospace manufacturing and other industries is an astonishing 30 percent, give or take.
According to Maxey, the value of all that scrapped material is $630 million per year. The environmental and economic benefits of capturing the intrinsic value of this waste stream are, for lack of a better word, self-evident.
There are various grades of carbon fiber scrap. Vartega's focus is on the uncured manufacturing scrap, which is typically landfilled because of the lack of a well-established secondary market. Vartega takes that material for free, sparing manufacturers disposal costs. It's a win-win.
Fiber composites including carbon fiber can be recycled by way of solvolysis, a chemistry-based process, or by pyrolysis, which involves the application of heat. In contrast to pyrolysis, solvolysis isn't dependent on infrastructure. That presents certain advantages. "Our chemistry-based process is less capital-intensive," explains Maxey. "We developed our technology to be modular and scalable."
Both approaches separate resin from carbon fiber which make up the composite so the fiber can be reused. Yet not all carbon fiber scrap has the same properties. The rigidity and strength of composites increase through a curing process. "Once the material is fully crosslinked it's cured," explains Maxey, "and that's a more difficult material to recycle today."
Solvolysis is most suitable to de-coupling fiber and resin in uncured composites and, at least with Vartega's process, it's less energy-intensive than pyrolysis. And recycling is, on average, 90 to 95 percent less energy-intensive than manufacturing virgin carbon fiber. To Maxey, the environmental benefits that provides is a call to arms.
Vartega recently achieved a major milestone with the release of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) manufactured in partnership with Golden-based Steelhead Composites and Ohio-based Michelman. Think of a lighter storage vessel for liquid or gas made with composites instead of steel or copper.
"We haven't determined if that's the right application for commercial applicability," states Maxey, "but as a demonstration point it was great to showcase that technology is appropriate for continuous fiber recycling and really is a jumping off point to pursue that commercially in the future."
Vartega recycled carbon fiber scrap from Steelhead, which manufactures COPVs from virgin materials. The fiber was then sent it to Michelman for sizing -- the process of coupling fiber to chemicals which bind, protect and lubricate it. Steelhead then completed the vessel, which was presented last May.
Maxey noted an impressively quick turnaround from conceptualization to execution on that project.
SGL Group, a leading carbon products manufacturer, noted that it has never seen better quality recycled carbon fiber. Vartega's product has the same mechanical integrity as virgin fiber.
Much of Vartega's success to date, as well as the company's direction, rests on manufacturing and research partnerships. Vartega, on the tail end of commissioning pilot facility in Golden, just announced at the Techstars Mobility Demo Day that it will be opening a facility in Detroit in collaboration with the Institute for Advanced Composites Innovation (IACMI).
Vartega isn't doing high-volume recycling yet and doesn't have metrics available on volume of materials recycled to date. Yet, at the Golden facility, Maxey says, "We've actually recycled a significant quantity of carbon fiber through that system already."
The big picture is bridging the gap between R&D and commercialization. Maxey is confident that the price of Vartega's material will be "extremely competitive" with virgin fiber -- perhaps half as expensive by volume.
"I think that there are some early opportunities for the use of recycled carbon fiber in additive manufacturing and 3D printing," Maxey states, "so we're focused heavily on that area today." The sporting goods industry will likely be the first to harness those processes. Carbon fiber is already being used in skis, bike frames and tennis rackets.
In the long term, carbon fiber reinforced plastics have the potential to displace steel and aluminum in many industries, especially automobile manufacturing. The lighweighting advantage will result in emissions reductions. Potential applications in aerospace and wind energy are also evident by now. Vartega has four patents pending.
Challenges: "Our hope and expectation is that adoption will happen very quickly and the demand from the automotive industry will grow rapidly -- which I think it will. But getting that timing right, or scaled appropriately to meet that growing demand has all other sets of challenges, including financing, staffing, facilities."
Opportunities: The opportunities of solvolysis carbon fiber recycling as "broad, varied, and extremely exciting," Maxey states. To that end, he's pursuing relationships with the automotive industry that will support other areas of development. Strategic partnerships are already paying off, as new ones in additive manufacturing and 3D printing, sporting goods, and the automotive industry start to take shape. Additionally, Vartega has partnered with a major aerospace company that will be announced in early 2018.
A final partnership demonstrating the value of this technology is Vartega's collaboration with Alchemy Bicycle Company of Denver. Alchemy and Vartega will be using Alchemy's own recycled fiber scrap into a 3D-printing filament for developing and prototyping. "They used to have to landfill it and now they're able to divert it all to us," says Maxey.
Needs: Maxey identifies raising capital and adding to the team as pressing needs, given Vartega's anticipated growth.