Sustainable composites offer light-weight solutions, cost is a consideration

4/10/2024 Debra Levey Larson

Written by Debra Levey Larson

Founder Professor of Engineering Jeff Baur heads the composite processing and additive manufacturing lab in the Department of Aerospace Engineering. He is also a part of the Autonomous Materials Systems Group at the Beckman Institute.
AE Founder Professor Jeff Baur heads the composite processing and additive manufacturing lab and is a part of the Autonomous Materials Systems Group at the Beckman Institute.

Many week-long scientific conferences present so many speakers and sessions that attendees leave without a clearer understanding of the topics. The SAMPE Materials Innovation Forums are different. They are single- track conferences over just a couple of days with a single theme. So, when Jeff Baur was asked to help organize, he knew it could be something valuable to him and to the entire composite community.

The process to develop the forum began by asking what aspect of composites people were most interested in exploring.

“My colleagues and co-organizers from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the University of Minnesota and I talked about a lot of topics, but sustainability kept getting higher and higher on the list,” Baur said. “It was clear that sustainability is something people care about right now and for the foreseeable future.” Baur is a professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

After the theme was determined, the team developed a list of speakers from industry, academia, and government labs, then invited speakers and finalized the agenda.

One of the word clouds created at the forum to visually represent the group's opinions about composite materials
One of the word clouds created at the forum to visually represent the group's opinions about composite materials and sustainability 

“At that point, I said I want everyone to leave this forum with more in their hands about what was discussed. I’ve been to many meetings where I leave thinking, “What was the result of that investment in time?” Baur said.

His solution was to use Poll Everywhere to get real time feedback from those attending each session. Baur added a QR code to a PowerPoint slide so they could use their phone to access a site and fill out a questionnaire on the spot with real-time display of the inputs.

“It's much more participatory,” Baur said. “I’ve been using it in classes and students like it. I thought this is a good way to take the pulse of the audience and capture what others are saying about these different aspects of sustainability.

Baur leading the summary session of the forum
Baur leading the summary session of the forum

“About 63 percent of those at the forum were from industry, 12 percent from academia, and 13 percent from government labs. Despite this being the first time we were together to focus on sustainability, it was remarkable how much we were all on the same page. There appeared to be strong agreement on the importance of addressing sustainability issues with composites from the future-focused academic, the strategic-focused government researcher, and manufacturing-focused industrialist,” he said.

Following invited talks from technical leaders on each of the seven sessions which spanned energy, automotive, and aerospace sectors, Baur framed the summary questions in terms of a SWOT analysis in which the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of composites were assessed relative to that sub area.

Baur said some outcomes from the forum he anticipated, but others were surprising.

With an almost 40% decrease in weight when using composite over structural alternatives for vehicles, the increased use of composites is compelling.

“Composites can make a significant difference in decreasing the carbon footprint in transportation by making everything lighter weight. That was a starting point for everyone at the forum. But then came the question is, why aren't we using more composites everywhere?

Summary of the top themes from the forum on composites
Summary of the top themes from the forum on sustainability of composites

“The SWOT analysis showed that cost was the number one weakness and the number one threat in using composites to enhance sustainability - something we can’t ignore,” he said. “As a researcher, I have to consider what is driving that industrial dynamic. If the biggest barrier to adopting composites in manufacturing is cost and I don’t address that, I'm not going to change the future.”

Baur said because composites have to compete with lower cost materials, they have to earn their acceptance based on better performance – this now also includes their sustainability performance.

Cost can be related to the energy, capital equipment, and labor needed for manufacturing, the material cost, and the disposal cost.

“We do the performance-cost trades for pristine materials,” Baur said. “Now give me recycled material. We expect cost will go down but does it still have a compelling enough value proposition to be selected? There’s the cost of the pristine material, the cost of the infrastructure to process it, and now you’re throwing in the cost for recycling and reprocessing. How does that all fit? That’s why I think cost came out to be the number one weakness and threat.”

“The number one strength for composites was their light-weight properties and the number one opportunity was for composite recycling. Both came through clearly. The more industry-focused automotive session admitted they produce a lot of waste and need new approaches for recycling—one with a compelling value proposition.” Baur said.

Baur, who works on a UIUC-led Department of Energy center called REMAT focused on low-energy manufacturing and regenerative thermosetting resins, noted “I expected to hear that thermoplastics composites were recyclable and thermosets composites were not. But thermoplastics did not come up in discussion as much as I expected. Recycling did.”

Baur said several government agencies used the SWOT results as confirmation of their investments including those focused on the emerging hydrogen economy. They also saw new opportunities.

Looking back on the forum, Baur was pleased to have helped guide the composite community toward new directions. In the upcoming international technical meeting in May, there will be multi-track discussions on composites for sustainability and recycling to keep the conversation going.

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This story was published April 10, 2024.