Sustainability: Circular innovation to extend the lifespan of carbon fibre

As part of its sustainability efforts, the UCI participates in the Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance, aiming to reduce waste and pollution generated from the manufacturing and use of carbon fibre.

Most high-end bikes are manufactured with carbon fibre thanks to its light weight and high strength properties. The use of this material extends throughout the sports industry, with considerable consequences for the environment:

  • the sports industry is the 3rd largest global user of carbon fibre

  • most carbon fibre sports equipment has an average three-year lifespan

  • 90% of end-of-life carbon fibre equipment ends up in landfill.

To address the negative impact of carbon fibre use, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is part of the award-winning Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance, promoting industry efforts to reduce waste and pollution and participate in cross-sector collaborations for circular innovation.

The UCI’s partnership with the Alliance is in line with the UCI Agenda 2030, which places much emphasis on sustainable development and facing the challenges of climate change.

What is carbon fibre?

Carbon fibre is a high-performing material used in a variety of industries. Ninety per cent of today's carbon fibres are made from polyacrylonitrile, which in turn is manufactured from products that come from petroleum. Weight and strength properties have resulted in the material being widely used in sports equipment, especially in elite-level competition.

Carbon fibre is used for its strength-to-weight ratio and performance properties to manufacture bike frames, wheels, forks, stems, seat posts, and shoes. Carbon fibre allows people to outperform themselves compared to other materials and make the riding experience more comfortable. The use of the material is growing, and sport represents the third largest user of the material behind aerospace and the wind turbine industry.

Like any material that requires a long and complex manufacturing process, carbon fibre has the potential to have a heavy effect on the environment. Carbon fibre production is energy-intensive; it is difficult to recycle and not biodegradable. Carbon fibre cannot be remelted and recycled like aluminium, and until recently, no sustainable end-of-life solution has been available for carbon fibre.

The Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance

Circular innovation rethinks how we produce and consume things to optimise natural resources and limit the waste of raw materials, water and energy. The Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance was officially launched on Earth Day (22 April 2022) with the announcement of a ground-breaking collaboration of International Federations, leading sports manufacturers, composite specialists, and academics to support a demonstration project to reuse and realign carbon fibres.

Managed and coordinated by the World Sailing Trust, the Carbon Fibre Demonstration Project included the Union Cycliste Internationale, International Biathlon Union, World Sailing, International Tennis Federation and four equipment manufacturers. The UCI brought onboard SCOTT Sports as a bike equipment partner due to Scott's decade-long support of the UCI World Cycling Centre and solidarity programmes with equipment.

Demonstration Project: from bike to ski

For Andrew Goodman, CSR Manager at SCOTT Sports SA, the Carbon Fibre Demonstration Project perfectly aligned with Scott's aim to maximise their products' sustainability while maintaining their high-performance level through innovation, technology and design.

SCOTT Sports worked with technical Lead Lineat Composites and supporting research from the University of Bristol, to show how it is possible to reclaim broken/failed carbon components through a novel reclamation process that realigns the fibres into uni-directional tapes utilising the innovative HiPerDiF process system.

Recycling carbon fibre is a two-step process that involves getting the fibres out of a broken component, then realigning those carbon fibres. Lineat composites chop the carbon fibre into small pieces before sending them to a reclaimer, where dried carbon fibres are returned as a fluffy material. The next stage is like a "high tech paper-making process" where the carbon fibre is mixed in water and then put through a machine and sprayed between parallel plates, a procedure that aligns the fibres into a long continuous tape.

SCOTT Sports provided Lineat Composites with an end-of-life bike frame and forks for reclamation. They then successfully tested the recycled carbon fibre tape, known as AFFT tape (Aligned Fibre Formable Technology), to build a prototype ski using the realigned carbon fibres. The demonstration project has shown that carbon fibre from sports equipment can be recycled and reused in perpetuity.

Next steps for the Carbon Fibre Circular Alliance

The prototype machine based at the National Composite Centre allowed the researchers to align carbon fibres manually, but the next-generation machine will enable the team to align around 80 billion fibres daily.

The next challenge before we see recycled carbon fibre bikes or other components on the market will be creating the systems to address logistics for collection, reclamation, and reuse. Sports equipment must also be considered a priority for this innovative technological process alongside the other industrial users from aerospace and wind turbines.

With the successful completion of the Demonstration Project period, phase two of the alliance will see its position at the heart of a circular mindset within sport under a more formal membership structure, with targets to showcase AFFT sports equipment at the Olympic Games. This will encourage many International Federations and equipment manufacturers to join the drive for greater circularity and responsibility for end-of-life sports equipment.

Photo: © Scott Sports/Roo Fowler