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Photo of The Composite Wing Center.
The Composite Wing Center has been sending all of its excess carbon fiber to a global recycler for the past 18 months as part of a pilot project to recycle the material into new products such as computer cases and car parts. (Boeing)

Boeing and ELG Carbon Fibre recently announced a partnership to recycle excess aerospace-grade composite material, which will be used by other companies to make products such as electronic accessories and automotive equipment. The agreement – the first of its kind for the aerospace industry – covers excess carbon fiber from 11 Boeing airplane manufacturing sites and will reduce solid waste by more than one million pounds a year.

Carbon-fiber reinforced material is extremely strong and lightweight, making it attractive for a variety of uses, including in building the super-efficient 787 Dreamliner and the all-new 777X airplane. As the largest user of aerospace-grade composites from its commercial and defense programs, Boeing has been working for several years to create an economically viable carbon fiber reuse industry. The company improved its production methods to minimize excess and developed a model for collecting scrap material.

But technical barriers stood in the way of repurposing material that had already been "cured" or prepped for use in the airplane manufacturing process. UK-based ELG developed a proprietary method to recycle "cured" composites so they do not have to be thrown out.

To prove that the recycling method can be applied on a grand scale, Boeing and ELG conducted a pilot project where they recycled excess material from Boeing's Composite Wing Center in Everett, Wash., where the massive wings for the 777X airplane are made. ELG put the excess materials through treatment in a furnace, which vaporizes the resin that holds the carbon fiber layers together and leaves behind clean material. Over the course of 18 months, the companies saved 380,000 pounds of carbon fiber, which was cleaned and sold to companies in the electronics and ground transportation industries.

Based on the success of the pilot project, Boeing says the new agreement should save a majority of the excess composite material from its 11 sites, which will support the company's goal to reduce solid waste going to landfills 20 percent by 2025. Boeing and ELG are considering expanding the agreement to include excess material from three additional Boeing sites in Canada, China and Malaysia.

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